National Science Foundation releases recommendations that impact UT Antartica projects

Matthew Hart

Projects in Antarctica by UT researchers in the Institute for Geophysics could be affected by a summary of plans released by the National Science Foundation to improve research and facilities in the United States Antarctic Program.

The National Science Foundation released the report, “More and Better Science in Antarctica Through Increased Logistical Effectiveness,” last week as a response to ten recommendations made by the U.S. Air Force Blue Ribbon Panel. The panel was put in place to conduct an independent review of policy and advise the agency on how to improve its logistical capabilities.

UT Research scientist associate, Joseph MacGregor, said he understands why the foundation has chosen to take this approach given the challenging budget situation.

“Program managers and proposal review panels already consider the logistics burdens of proposal projects, although the latter group does so perhaps more indirectly than the former,” Macgregor said. “Reviewing the scientific merit of proposals is already a lot of work, so I’m concerned that requiring a more formal review of logistics costs will shift added burden to scientists if it is not implemented effectively.”

The report indicated the foundation has already begun implementing many of the cost-saving ideas proposed by the Blue Ribbon Panel. 

According to UT research scientist associate, Britney Schmidt, most of the logistical costs are for maintaining sites, which is necessary, and not due the impact of any one grant.

“Of course there are probably ways to cut back, but I think we’re in a climate of cutting for cutting’s sake, and at some point, you start cutting out the ability to do great science,” Schmidt said.

Representatives of the foundation are considering ways to reduce the size of its ice-equipped aircraft fleet, which has become costly. Schmidt said this year there were already too few flights scheduled for the C17 aircraft impacting everyone on site.

“This impacted everyone because science equipment was late, which can extend or prevent program operation,” Schmidt said. “By saving a few flights' cost, you might actually lose more money by having to have more people around the site for longer, or by having to have a second season for some programs that can’t finish their objectives. Or worse, not having the ability for programs to finish their objectives, which has all kinds of costs you might not be able to put on a line item.”

Forcing principal investigators and review panels to consider the cost effectiveness of their institution’s proposed work is concerning to senior research scientist Don Blankenship.

“There is no way an individual [principal investigators] can accommodate the full spectrum of these imperatives within a particular proposal and if we tried to address those issues there would be significant push back by our reviewers as well as the administrators overseeing the proposal process,” Blankenship said. “The bottom line here is that we will continue to propose work that is justifiably efficient within the NSF operational system as we understand it.”