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Despite End of U.S. Shutdown, Antarctic Research Projects Still Getting Canceled

20 October 2013 11:45 am
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Landlocked. Ecologist Stacy Kim, here diving in Antarctica in 2011, has been told her 2013 field season at McMurdo Station will have to be delayed until next year because of the U.S. government shutdown.

Credit: Adam Marsh/US Antarctic Program

Landlocked. Ecologist Stacy Kim, here diving in Antarctica in 2011, has been told her 2013 field season at McMurdo Station will have to be delayed until next year because of the U.S. government shutdown.

Wait until next year.

That’s what the National Science Foundation (NSF) has told benthic ecologist Stacy Kim, who later this month was expecting to assemble her 13-member research team in Antarctica to study its intricate food web. Although the U.S. Antarctic program that NSF runs is back in business, fears that the 16-day U.S. government shutdown would squeeze out research on the frozen continent have become reality for some scientists.

The bad news for Kim came this past Friday morning, only 24 hours after her program manager and the rest of the NSF staff had returned to work. “He said my project was unsupportable because the resources won’t be available in time,” says Kim, a researcher at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in northern California, a part of the California state universities. “So the project is being delayed until next year.”

Kim has an NSF grant to study how the foraging habits of the continent’s top predators—Adélie penguins and minke and killer whales—affect distribution of their prey, mainly krill and silverfish. The project is based at a field camp set up on the sea ice outside McMurdo Station, the biggest of the three U.S. Antarctic outposts. It includes a remotely operated submersible equipped with environmental sensors as well as divers. This year, her second and final field season of the 4.5-year grant, Kim had also arranged a one-time only collaboration with scientists at nearby Italian, New Zealand, and Australian bases to expand the geographic scope of her project.

The research requires considerable logistical support. Researchers need snowmobiles early in the season to carry ice cores and water samples back to the station. Once the ice becomes too unstable, the ferrying is done by helicopter. Kim doesn’t know why her project was pulled out of the lineup, nor the criteria that NSF is using. But she understands that both NSF and the contractor, Lockheed Martin, are being forced to make some hard choices.

“It’s a tough job to coordinate everything, and I sympathize with what they are going through,” she says. “But the fact that it happened so quickly makes me think that NSF has created some rules that it is applying without actually looking at individual projects.”

Kim said the contractor, based in Denver, asked her the day after NSF announced the stations would be going on caretaker status if it would be possible to scale back her research. The contingency plan she submitted reduced the number of samples to be collected “to the minimum needed to still be able to carry out the work we had promised to do,” she says. “But the international collaborators are only available this year, for one month, so I didn’t want to eliminate them.”

Although NSF has promised her that the project will be supported in the 2014 to '15 season, Kim isn’t sure that she’ll be able to retain her team. “Some of the engineers and technicians will have to go on unemployment, because if they can’t go to Antarctica they can’t work,” she says. “I have two grad students finishing a master’s program, and a 1-year delay will be a big blow to them. My postdoc is in his last year. I’m also concerned about the future of my new Ph.D. student, because delaying her start is not good.” 

The rescheduling also creates a logistical nightmare. “Everybody has sublet their places,” Kim explains. “Now that they won’t be going to Antarctica for 3 months, they’re going to have to figure out where to live.”

On Friday, the U.S. Antarctic Program issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to the community on its plans for rebounding from the shutdown. The letter, from Scott Borg, head of the Antarctic Sciences Section, included this description of how projects would be scheduled:

“NSF decisions about priorities for restart are conditioned by factors such as continuity of long-term data sets, time-criticality of observations or studies, impacts on young or early career investigators, and international or interagency partnerships. Our deliberations have been, and will continue to be, informed by input provided by the potentially affected Principal Investigators.”

*Updated, 21 October, 9:40 a.m.: This article was updated to include information on a "Dear Colleague" letter that the U.S. Antarctic Program sent to researchers on Friday, 18 October.

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