A substantial strength of the National Science Foundation (NSF) resides in the creativity and ingenuity of grassroots science proposals, as was noted in NASEM (2015). That report stated that the NSF “model of supporting research across a broad spectrum of disciplinary areas, in response to proposals from across the research community, continues to be effective in sustaining and stimulating a vibrant scientific enterprise” and recommended that while supporting the three strategic priority initiatives, NSF should also “continue to support a core program of broad-based, investigator-driven research” (NASEM, 2015). The report suggested “that NSF’s traditional broad-based research support strategies be balanced with more directed, larger-scale efforts aimed at ensuring that a critical mass of human and financial resources is concentrated on meeting key research goals over a limited period of time.” Advancing the named high-priority initiatives while supporting other investigator-led research is critical to meet the broad NSF mission. Therefore, although the study charge (see Chapter 1) focused on a review of the three strategic priorities, the committee also examined progress and implementation issues facing NSF’s broad-based core research program.
For this review, the committee defines the broad-based core program as NSF-funded research in Antarctica that addresses topics outside the three priority areas discussed in the previous chapters. Awards include large programs, such as the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, and Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM),1 along with many smaller single investigator and small team efforts.
NASEM (2015) recognized the challenges of balancing support for the strategic priorities and other research. This committee agrees that strategic initiatives are critical to address large and important science questions and maintain NSF’s scientific leadership and recognizes that prioritizing certain areas of science will inevitably lead to reductions in support for other areas unless new funds are made available, through either budget increases (enabling additional logistics resources as well as science funding), partnerships, or substantial new efficiencies. At the time of the 2015 report, NSF was preparing for flat budgets while also responding to the conclusions of the U.S. Antarctic Program Blue Ribbon Panel (BRP, 2012) that aging and deferred investment in infrastructure was increasingly becoming costly and a fundamental barrier for the science that needed to be addressed. Therefore, NASEM (2015) recommended that NSF “actively look for
opportunities to gain efficiencies and improve coordination and data sharing among independent studies.”
The committee found an evaluation of the broad-based core program to be challenging, given the program’s size and complexity, the limited data available, and the broad objective of continuing to support high-quality, investigator-driven research across the NSF Antarctic Sciences program. The committee reviewed grant award information between 2011 and 2020 provided by NSF and held two virtual meetings with a cross section of members of the scientific community to discuss their perceptions of the broad-based component of NSF Antarctic Sciences to help assess the state of the core grant program. Input from these sessions is reflected below and in Chapter 6, where cross-cutting issues are discussed that span multiple scientific focal areas. The committee did not attempt to evaluate individual projects.
Science Funding and Breadth
The amount of research funding directed to investigator-driven proposals outside of the three research priorities, while highly variable from year to year, did not change significantly when averaged over the years 2016-2020 ($31 million/year) compared to 2011-2015 ($28 million/year; funding not corrected for inflation). When the large programs IceCube, SOCCOM, and LTER are omitted from the analysis, average annual funding shows a declining trend, with $20 million/year average from 2016-2020 compared to $24 million/year for 2011-2015. Figure 5-1 shows that the median project funding awarded remained relatively stable, although 2019-2020 showed increasing project funding per project, with a decline in the number of projects, highlighting a possible shift toward larger, collaborative research initiatives.
Although there is significant variability in the numbers of projects each year in different fields, there is no discernable evidence that the topical breadth covered by the broad program has been reduced since NASEM (2015).
Since the release of NASEM (2015), NSF has continued to fund a wide range of research, and this has resulted in significant scientific discoveries across many major disciplines. To illustrate the variety of the research, several examples of successful programs are highlighted below. These are just a few examples chosen from among many to illustrate the breadth of topics addressed and the range of size of successful research efforts. The examples span large programs as well as single investigator projects.
Southern Ocean Biogeochemistry
The Southern Ocean plays a disproportionately important role in the planet’s carbon biogeochemistry. The NSF-funded SOCCOM program has deployed 180 Argo biogeochemical profiling floats (see Figure 5-2), and has recently been funded to deploy 120 more. This network of monitoring floats permits year-round sampling that provides four-dimensional information on phytoplankton, particle, and carbon dynamics in the upper Southern Ocean. To date, this network has discovered previously undocumented, wintertime CO2 flux from the ocean to the atmosphere that has implications for global carbon cycling (Gray et al., 2018) and has observed a large uptake of atmospheric oxygen in the Southern Ocean (Bushinsky et al., 2017).
Evolution of Biological Processes: Hibernation
Hibernation is a fundamental behavior for many animals especially in polar regions because it helps them survive winter months when food is scarce, temperatures drop, and days are dark. An NSF-funded project by the University of Washington has found evidence of hibernation in an Antarctic animal 250 million years ago during the Early Triassic (Whitney and Sidor, 2020). The genus
Lystrosaurus (see Figure 5-3), a distant relative of mammals, was largely located within the Antarctic Circle when this region experienced extended periods without sunlight each winter.
The IceCube Neutrino Observatory near the South Pole detects neutrinos associated with high-energy cosmic rays. Comprising 5,000 digital optical modules, the network detects the faint flash of light that occurs when a neutrino interacts with the ice. IceCube discovered a flux of extragalactic neutrinos with an energy density that established neutrinos and the cosmic rays as important components in the energy balance of the extreme universe (see Figure 5-4). Because researchers could trace the source of these rays to a particular distant galaxy, the IceCube data may point to a solution of a 100-year-old puzzle of how the highest-energy cosmic rays are generated. The large neutrino flux implied that much of the energy in the nonthermal universe is generated in powerful hadronic accelerators powered by objects such as black holes or neutron stars (IceCube Collaboration, 2018).
Atmospheric Sciences: Cold Water Physics
Scientists from Penn State measured drizzle at temperatures well below freezing for the first time (Silber et al., 2019). Using ground-based and satellite measurements (see Figure 5-5), researchers recorded drizzle at −13°F for more than 7.5 hours at McMurdo Station. This supercooled drizzle has significant implications for climate model predictions and radiative properties of the atmosphere.
Climate Change Effects on Antarctic Ecosystems
The LTER program is focused on collecting time-series measurements in diverse ecosystems (see Figure 5-6). NSF’s Office of Polar Programs supports two LTER sites: one in the McMurdo Dry Valleys and a second along the West Antarctic Peninsula. These sites have been critical for tracking potential impacts of changing climate on these polar ecosystems over the past 30 years. Both sites have documented significant responses spanning all trophic levels in their respective food webs. Results have also demonstrated that the changes in the food web have significant impacts on the rates of biogeochemical cycling in these systems.
Space Weather Monitoring
Antarctic space weather measurements supported by NSF are central to a strategic multidecadal research framework for space physics, called Heliophysics2050 (NRC, 2013; NASEM, 2020), which was developed at a series of NASA-sponsored community workshops.2 These measurements include high-resolution gamma-ray imaging of solar flares from long-duration balloons launched from McMurdo as well as balloon-borne coronagraphs to measure low-coronal magnetic fields. Additionally, the expanded networks of ground magnetometers (see Figure 5-7) and high-frequency radars enable new and improved capabilities to remotely sense electrical current systems and hydromagnetic waves in both hemispheres simultaneously. Total electron content obtained from the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), derived from the ANET-POLENET GNSS array,
are important ionospheric measurements. The Heliophysics community utilization of the GNSS measurements points to the broader utilization of data, in this case by a completely different research community than the one collecting the measurements.
Access to Antarctica remains one of the largest hurdles for researchers. During community outreach meetings, researchers provided many examples of core-program proposals that were put on hold, declined, or actively discouraged from submission because of logistical constraints that occurred prior to pandemic-related delays. Additionally, many proposals requiring field work in regions more difficult to access for U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) field and marine operations, particularly those in regions geographically far from USAP stations, were sidelined, regardless of quality or value of such new science objectives. These delays or
rejections are particularly difficult for early-career researchers, who are also less likely to know the factors that affect logistics allocation within NSF.
The logistical constraints discussed in each of the prior chapters also affect broad, investigator-driven research beyond the priorities, although some effects are felt differently within the core program. Researchers expressed concerns that individuals and small teams of scientists, which make up the bulk of broad-based research awards, seemed to be at a disadvantage in securing logistics support in Antarctica compared to larger, integrated projects, potentially because of the efficiencies of scale for logistics with integrated projects. As noted in NASEM (2015), “there is no truly ‘small science’ in the Antarctic—given the significant logistical needs,” and the expense and other logistics challenges of field research are well understood by the community. However, members of the scientific community expressed that opportunities for advance coordination regarding logistics as well as opportunities to alter the scope of a rejected project in the face of constrained logistics could be more clearly discussed with investigators, with a more transparent process defined. Improved communication between NSF and the research community could lead to better coordination among researchers with overlapping geographic or topical interests, increase efficiencies, and reduce frustration over logistics constraints. Suggestions to address logistical challenges across all priorities and broad-based research are discussed in detail in Chapter 6.
NSF appears to have sustained a broad-based core research program, although logistical constraints have affected the available support for science. The committee could not detect a clear change in the breadth of or funding for Antarctic science outside of the three strategic priorities, although the program in the past 3 years has trended toward larger but fewer projects. However, prior to the pandemic, several supported projects experienced serious delays, and scientifically highly rated proposals have been declined due to logistical constraints. Communication of logistical constraints often comes late in the process after proposals are submitted, with limited options to adjust the scope to reduce the logistics footprint, and delays or rejections are particularly challenging for early-career researchers. Specific recommendations to address these issues, including improved communication and planning early in the proposal process, are discussed in Chapter 6.
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