The hidden row over NZ's mission to Antarctica and the future of Scott Base – Stuff

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made a rare trip to Antarctica to see firsthand research on global warming. But the reason for her visit was met with a frosty reception from some scientists. Andrea Vance reports.
Jacinda Ardern’s recent trip to Antarctica was beset with problems. She joined the infamous ‘boomerang club’ when her military cargo plan was turned around due to deteriorating weather. And her return was delayed by a night when the aircraft broke down on the runway.
The mishaps highlight the challenges of visiting the icy continent. They are familiar to the 100-or-so scientists and technicians who travel to the ends of the earth each summer to carry out cutting-edge research.
As she stood in the historic hut of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton with fiancé Clarke Gayford, Ardern marvelled at the “hardship and endurance” of the early polar expeditions. Antarctica’s logistics are not as arduous as they were a century ago, but undertaking scientific research on the ice is still expensive and challenging.
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Transport woes notwithstanding, getting one of the planet’s most glamorous political couples to the frozen continent was a public relations coup, drawing the international gaze to vital research on global warming, sea ice cracking, and melting glaciers and icebergs.
Her visit coincided with a major international meeting on Antarctic conservation in Hobart, during which China and Russia continued to block marine protection for the continent’s pristine waters.
Ardern was also there to mark the 65th anniversary of Scott Base, New Zealand’s only Antarctic research station. In last year’s Budget, the Government earmarked $344 million to redevelop its outdated buildings and wind farm.
The huge bill created debate within the science community about whether the expense was justified. That was reignited by Ardern’s visit – amongst persistent rumours that the costs have now blown out to a hefty $500m.
Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Sarah Williamson wouldn’t confirm the exact cost of the overrun. But she said: “We’re facing the same inflation issues everyone else is that’s running a major construction or capital works project. We are trying to be as cautious as we can … but inevitably we will face some constraints.”
Jasmax is the local architect, working alongside UK-based Hugh Broughton Architects, who designed the roughly $50m British Halley VI base on the Brunt Ice Shelf.
“It is worth remembering we’re not just building a base – it’s a small town with an electricity system, wind farm, new water and wastewater systems,” Williamson said. “As well as buildings which have to cope with enormous winds and in minus 60 degrees C.”
Some leading scientists have observed a decline in New Zealand’s research capability and reputation. They say science is no longer “top priority”, replaced with a focus on the rebuild, and a shift to a “business-driven” culture at Antarctica New Zealand.
“For several years, we’ve been concerned about the science able to be done with the support given,” said Peter Barrett, patron of the New Zealand Antarctic Society. “There hasn’t been a review of the whole science programme since 2005.
“It seems to me that our future environmental and international reputation is now at stake. The whole Antarctic and Southern Ocean strategic development and implementation process should not only be transparent, but also led by people who understand and appreciate science.”
Barrett was the founding director of the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, and its director from 1972 until 2007. A geologist, he discovered the first tetrapod fossils in Antarctica in 1967, undertaken 25 expeditions to the ice, and made an award-winning film: Thin Ice – the Inside Story of Climate Science.
In a submission to officials in March, Barrett and Robin Falconer, also of the NZAS, pointed to a drop in annual publication numbers and citations from authored Antarctic and Southern Ocean research. In 25 years of data, they noted an irregular rise from 2004 to a peak at 200 in 2015. There were bumper years for biological sciences in 2006 and 2010.
But in the four years to 2019, there was a drop to 150. “This drop suggests some difficulties with the programme and would seem to warrant examination by experts,” they wrote.
Measuring scholarly impact is tricky. Barrett acknowledges bibliometrics are a crude method. But it is important for New Zealand’s reputation, he says. “We are still above average internationally. It’s just that we used to be a bit more prominent.”
Barrett points to a change in culture at Antarctica NZ. The board is made up of business luminaries like Sir Brian Roche, ex-Kiwibank chair Rob Morrison, Air NZ and ASB Bank chair Dame Therese Walsh and ex-Sky TV lobbyist Tony O’Brien. It also includes seismologist Helen Anderson, and environmental manager Neil Gilbert.
“There used to be people with more Antarctic and scientific knowledge on the board,” Barrett says. “That isn’t to say the board isn’t highly capable. It is not necessarily a criticism, but it does bring a different culture.”
In October 2018, so concerned at the drift, NZAS wrote to then foreign minister Winston Peters, saying: “Increasingly, rather than focusing on science with international significance and impact, we have seen science used to support short-term public relations exercises aimed at raising the profile of the organisation and its leadership.”
In the previously unpublished letter, the society noted a doubling in Antarctica NZ’s budget since 2008. “This significant increase in resources has not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in productivity or impact of NZ Antarctic research compared with previous decades.”
The Antarctica funding landscape is complex – puzzling even the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard, who observed in 2019: “I’m an engaged scientist, and it took me a while to figure out (the) very complex ecosystem”.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is the main research funder, providing close to $21m in direct funding each year. Since 2018, MBIE also injected another $7m a year – for seven years –to fund the Antarctic Science Platform.
The Royal Society Te Apārangi distributes $3.3m, another $3.8m comes from six universities and three Crown Research Institutes, and $1.7M from four government agencies (Ministry of Primary Industries, Department of Conservation, Land Information NZ and Te Papa).
The Defence Force also contributes – transporting passengers and cargo by air and sea. Last season, 200 personnel took part and HMNZS Aotearoa made her maiden voyage to the frozen ocean.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs funds operations in Christchurch and on the ice through an annual grant just over $20m. That has remained static in the last seven years.
Alan Hemmings, of the University of Canterbury, says scientists working out of Scott Base are concerned about a “hiatus” in normal service for the duration of the build, which is expected to be finished in 2030.
“The main construction phase is still ahead of us,” he says. “This season was a recovery season after the Covid pandemic. So, if we say we’ve not had normal service since 2020/21 … we’re talking about a 10-year period.
“It’s a very considerable period if – as people believe – the capacity to conduct science and the willingness of Antarctica New Zealand to take a full complement of scientists down there is seriously impacted for a decade. That’s a very high cost to rebuild the station.”
Hemmings, who worked on the British, French and New Zealand national programmes, with Greenpeace and made multiple visits, believes there has been an “intellectual refocusing” at the national programme.
“You’ve only got to look at the staffing levels, and the focus of their press releases, to know the organisation has shifted its focus to a considerable extent from its prime declared mission – supporting New Zealand’s presence in Antarctica and the conduct of scientific research – to one of basically managing quite a big civil engineering project.”
He said spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the base has an “opportunity cost” for science.
“Most Antarctic science requires increasingly sophisticated equipment … and the New Zealand programme historically has been very focused on deep field operations, as opposed to doing everything out of Scott Base. That doesn’t seem likely to change.
“The proposed rebuilt Scott Base is not particularly rich in scientific facilities. It’s just a very big dormitory for housing people safely and decently on their way in and on the way out.”
Scientists find it difficult to get time on board RV Tangaroa, New Zealand’s only ice- strengthened, deep-water research vessel.
“There are some scientific programmes, particularly in relation to climate change research, where researchers would like to be able to use aircraft,” Hemmings said.
“This sort of kit is expensive, and New Zealand never seems to have any money for this kind of stuff. And it certainly won’t have money if it’s just spent $344 million completely rebuilding Scott Base.”
The previous National government deemed Antarctica as one of New Zealand’s strategic interests for the first time. As part of a defence capability review, it included the purchase of another ice-strengthened ship. But it was cancelled by the incoming Labour government.
National’s foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee puts it baldly: “We just don’t have the equipment to really properly service our opportunities and commitments in the Antarctic.”
Williamson accepts that funding has flat lined – and she says an increased interest in science research in Antarctica means the programme is oversubscribed. But barring the two seasons affected by the pandemic, the number of scientists on the ice has remained roughly the same since 2014, she said.
“We have more science and more researchers wanting to travel south than we can fit in our logistics budget and that’s been the same for quite some years … Our budget’s been the same for quite some time, and we are seeing … increasing labour, fuel and food costs.
“We are really cunning about how we use our funding, and we be careful because it is public money. But certainly, as inflation increases, we see an increased squeeze on our business as usual funding.”
A fixed-wing aircraft hs been leased for the next two seasons to allow research 1200km from Scott Base on the ice sheet, she said.
Williamson says the base can’t be separated from the science programme. “We have to do science, so we have to replace Scott Base because if we don’t, in ten years time we won’t have a base to run science from. That’s completely unacceptable. We have to do both.”
Williamson believes science should be measured by impact, rather than bibliometrics. “It depends on influence on policy, whether there are citations in key reports – I think of the IPCC’s [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations responsible for advancing knowledge on human-induced climate change] AR6 report for instance. New Zealand scientists played a key role on that. And the SCAR [International Science Council’s Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research] decadal climate change impacts on Antarctica.
“Those sorts of things show that New Zealand researchers are the best in the world and have influence.”
Criticism of the board is also unfair, she says.
“The organisation needs to be able to deliver logistics so that science is enabled, and it needs to be able to run the base … manage the finances, recruit the right people.
“It’s an entity designed to make sure logistics work really well for research, but we’re not a research entity. Having a board that has a real mix of skills is a great place to be because the organisation needs expertise in how to run itself, as well as the ability to generate a good logistics outcome for scientists.”
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