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Fiscal cliff overshadows US Antarctic science

McMurdo Station, the main US science facility in Antarctica

United States Antarctic Program

As US national science agencies brace for sweeping budget cuts in 2013, some experts warn that research efforts in Antarctica are poised to suffer devastating damage. The 8% across-the-board reductions, set to take effect in January, are likely to draw heavily from scientific research and spare infrastructure and logistical operations that support experiments in the unforgiving polar environment.

“You still have to have an ice-breaker if you have one scientist; you still have to heat the buildings if you have one scientist,” said Norman Augustine, the former chief executive of the Lockheed Martin Corporation who led a July 2012 report on the US Antarctic Program, as he testified in a 15 November hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Other witnesses included Subra Suresh, the director of the US National Science Foundation.

“The impact on science,” said Augustine, “would be many times the 8%.”

Legislators held the hearing to discuss the report ‘More and better science in Antarctica through increased logistical effectiveness’ by the US Antarctic Program Blue Ribbon Panel — a panel headed by Augustine and convened by the Office of Science and Technology and the National Science Foundation.

The report suggests that the US Antarctic Program may already need to cut some research efforts in the near future to support crucial repairs and upgrades to dilapidated infrastructure and transport systems. At present, science receives 20% of the program budget, and logistics — including specialized planes, vessels and buildings — receives 80%. Among other cuts, the report recommends 6% reductions in science expenditures over the next four years to help fund the improvements.

“The scientific community worries about the price of logistics,” said Warren Zapol, an anaesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who has studied how Antarctic seals hold their breath for extended periods. “They worry that logistics will get 100% of it and there won’t be any science.”

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