Indefinite deferral — sad news from Antarctica

The transition to "caretaker" status has resulted in almost complete shutdown of the Palmer Station laboratories.

The transition to “caretaker” status has resulted in almost complete shutdown of the Palmer Station laboratories. Equipment in this lab sits covered in protective plastic awaiting the return of scientists at some unspecified point in the future.

I haven’t written much in this space since the Gould pulled into Palmer Station five days ago. On Oct. 8 — the day we arrived — the National Science Foundation announced that it was effectively cancelling all upcoming U.S. research activities in Antarctica. Because Congress has failed to pass a budget for the federal fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, the NSF will run out of money to operate the U.S. Antarctic Program on Oct. 14. In advance of that date, contractors with Lockheed Martin, which maintains the U.S. Antarctic research stations and manages all USAP logistics, have begun transitioning Palmer to “caretaker” status.

No new scientific activities (experiments, data collection, etc.) will be started. All “nonessential” personnel — a group that includes me and the rest of the LTER team — will be leaving Palmer on Oct. 17 for a one-way trip back to the United States.

Boxes for our project remain unpacked and will stay on station awaiting our eventual (we hope) return.

Boxes for our project remain unpacked and will stay on station awaiting our eventual (we hope) return.

This decision was foisted on the NSF and other agencies by a small group of conservative Republicans in Congress, who are using the budget-making process to voice their objections to the Affordable Care Act. These elected officials’ callousness and intransigence — and the effect their obstructionism is having throughout the government — is maddening, frustrating, and thoroughly depressing.

Though I was reluctant to do so, I’ve shared my story with a few reporters in hopes of inspiring readers to contact their members of Congress. (You can contact your Congressman here.) Science has an article for which I was interviewed here; another post on ScienceInsider summarizes the many other effects the shutdown is having on U.S. scientific research. The Albany Times Union — the major newspaper that serves my childhood hometown in upstate New York — carries another version of the story.

Sean O'Neill and Monica Stegman, part of a research team from Brown University and the Marine Biological Laboratory, inventory their equipment as they prepare for the premature end of their experiments.

Sean O’Neill and Monica Stegman, part of a research team from Brown University and the Marine Biological Laboratory, inventory their equipment as they prepare for the premature end of their experiments.

Sebastian, my partner on the LTER project here, shared some of his own thoughts and concerns with Scientific American. Hugh Ducklow, the LTER study’s lead scientist, talked to the Associated Press here about why the loss of an entire field season would be tragic for the ongoing project.

Rather than re-word the many thoughts I’ve already put to paper over the past week, I am re-posting here an essay I drafted this week and submitted (unsuccessfully) to several newspapers. Please share your thoughts with me.

Hostages in Antarctica
James R. Collins, MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography

The announcement Wednesday morning was clear: For all but essential personnel, it would be a very short stay in Antarctica. Bewilderment and anger hung like a smothering blanket of wet snow over the heads of the 40 or so scientists and support personnel assembled in the all-hands lounge here at Palmer Station, one of the three permanent U.S. research bases on Antarctica. Although we were 7,190 miles from the epicenter of dysfunction in Washington, D.C., the station manager told us that the lack of a federal budget had forced the National Science Foundation to put all U.S. Antarctic Program research facilities into “caretaker” status, effective immediately.

The impact was obvious to everyone in the room: Because Congress has failed to pass a budget to fund most functions of our democracy, no official U.S. research will be conducted this austral summer on the West Antarctica Peninsula, a region that is among the fastest warming and most rapidly changing places on earth. In consultation with the White House, program managers at the $7 billion NSF had decided that continuing any non-essential operations in the absence of a signed federal budget or continuing resolution would put the agency in violation of the Antideficiency Act. Congress passed this act in 1884 to ensure no money would be disbursed from the Treasury unless it was backed by lawful appropriation. Scientific research, the sole purpose of the research bases on this vast and rapidly changing continent, is not considered essential.

The spiteful, infantile, and democratically perverse obstructionism that is being forced on the country by a small number of senators and congressmen will have very real and devastating consequences. Unless an agreement is reached, thousands of support personnel, both here and at the two larger U.S. Antarctic Program stations, will lose their jobs, given one-way tickets back to the United States. The hard-working scientists who nearly two decades ago established the Long Term Ecological Research study at Palmer — an effort that has yielded an invaluable, irreplaceable, and (until now) continuous scientific baseline against which to evaluate future changes to the ecosystem here — will likely get to watch as their government, through its inaction, coldly shuts the study down for the first time in its history.

Many millions of dollars in federal grant money that has already been spent to move equipment, food, and cargo into place for this current field season will go to waste. These grants were funded by U.S. taxpayers — the same weary taxpayers who will be asked to ante up again to put things back into place if and when Congress finally emerges with an agreement. Lead investigators will be forced to terminate their employment of new research assistants they had hired for the project, many of them aspiring scientists for whom this will be the first, bitter taste of what it is like to be a researcher in a dysfunctional republic that was once, but should no longer be, heralded for the way it holds in esteem scientific discovery.

I, and almost all of the other scientists and support staff here, will suffer in other ways. Many of the contractors will return to their homes without jobs. Since my studies as a graduate student are funded in part through a fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency — an agency itself in almost complete lockdown — I will very likely not receive any living stipend this month to make rent payments back home.

Though I am a veteran of the Armed Forces and I continue to serve today in the Coast Guard Reserve, I believe I am owed nothing by my country or by my government. I serve voluntarily because I am proud to be an American citizen, and because I believe each of us has obligation to give back in some way to our democracy. I am still, and will always be, proud to represent the United States — as a scientist, citizen, and member of the military.

And yet, on Wednesday morning, I could not help but feel that a small group of elected officials in Congress had made hostages of us at the hands of our own government, here at the end of the earth. Please, it is time to let us go.

I sincerely hope we’ll be able to salvage some of the remainder of the field season, if Congress does eventually pass a budget. Please check back in this space for updates; I hope we’ll be talking science the next time we meet.

A note on this post, though it should go without saying: Opinions are my own and do not represent the views of the National Science Foundation, U.S. Antarctic Program, Environmental Protection Agency, or U.S. Coast Guard.

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Indefinite deferral — sad news from Antarctica — 2 Comments

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