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Antarctic program spends most of its money just getting there

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A continued U.S. presence in Antarctica would provide long-term beneficial research, but must see a short-term shift of resources to repair its ailing logistics infrastructure, said National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh.

He testified Nov. 15 before the  House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in a  hearing to review the options and recommendations of the U.S. Antarctic Program's Blue Ribbon Panel's July report (.pdf) on the logistical struggles of the program.

The NSF manages the USAP and has established goals of researching global climate, space and the atmosphere while providing a regional U.S. presence. Suresh said USAP played a role in discovering the hole in the ozone layer, identified antifreeze proteins that can be used in medicine and food preservation, recently discovered the most prolific star-creating galaxy cluster and provides data for global weather monitoring and alerts systems.  

But panel chairman Norman Augustine noted that eighty cents of every dollar invested in USAP is devoted to logistics and that many logistics facilities are in disrepair.  Augustine said the program also suffers because it lacks a capital improvements budget.

The panel put forth a series of suggestions to reduce logistics costs and burdens while getting needed facilities up to adequate safety levels.

One of its costliest recommendations is to build U.S. icebreakers in cooperation with the Coast Guard to allow for access to the continent by U.S. ships alone. The U.S. currently relies on Russian ships, said Augustine.

Other recommendations center on improving warehouse space, replacing unsafe facilities and providing adequate quarters for those at the Antarctic stations.

According to the panel, the funds needed are not hard to come by. Augustine said increasing USAP's annual appropriation by $16 million per year for the next four years; shifting 6 percent of its budget from science to infrastructure upgrades over the same time period; and reinvesting the savings from a possible 20 percent reduction in contractor labor costs ($20 million per year) would allow it to meet all of the panel's suggestions.

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimonies and webcast available)
- download the Blue Ribbon report (.pdf)

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