WASHINGTON--An expert panel recommended today that the National Science Foundation (NSF) go ahead with its plan to build an ambitious new research station at the South Pole. But with an eye to making the cost more palatable to Congress, the panel is asking NSF to revise its blueprints, trimming the price tag from $150 million to $120 million, and squeeze $20 million out of its Antarctic research efforts.
Testifying today before a receptive House Science Committee, Norman Augustine, CEO of Lockheed-Martin and chair of the 11-member panel, called the existing Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole, one of three operated by NSF, the "crown jewel" of its scientific activities. But the jewel is tarnished--"the United States would not send a ship to sea or a spacecraft into orbit in [such] condition," he told the committee--and in need of immediate replacement.
In 1994, NSF proposed a $200 million replacement station that would allow 50 people--24 more than the current station--to winter over and would have expanded research and support facilities. That figure was later lowered to $180 million, and $25 million was spent this year on upgrades that would be part of the new station. The Augustine panel has trimmed another $30 million off the cost by shrinking the proposed station and abandoning some innovative features, including a hydroponic system for growing food and purifying sewage. NSF's 1998 budget request already calls for $25 million for unspecified renovations and repairs; the panel has calculated that NSF will need an additional $95 million over 5 years, starting this fall, to complete the new station by 2005.
The report, due out next month, will go to NSF director Neal Lane, who in a statement today applauded the panel's "dedication and expertise" and said he would consider its recommendations carefully. Neal Sullivan, head of NSF's Office of Polar Programs, said the biggest challenge is to "minimize the damage to research" from any program cuts and to "keep the community intact" while the new station is built. The final arbiter will be Congress. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chair of the science committee that oversees NSF's programs but not its budget, said he supports the need for a new station and that "$120 million is a lot better than $180 million" for selling the idea to appropriators.