The big questions

21:42, Jan 27 2013
ON THE ROOF: On top of the New Zealand-owned Arrival Heights research laboratory in Antarctica.

A group of distinguished visitors descended on Scott Base to discuss a "game-changer" in terms of Kiwi-led Antarctic science. Anna Pearson was there:

It's mid-January and the chief science adviser to the prime minister, a Nobel Laureate from England and the president of the Royal Society of New Zealand are sleeping on bunk beds in Antarctica. There are no ensuites at Scott Base, but Room 21 is where the DVs, or distinguished visitors, stay.

In a few days, it will be Prime Minister John Key's turn and he will probably get a bottom bunk.

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Sir Paul Nurse and Professor Sir David Skegg aren't just here for a slumber party at the bottom of the world.

For the next few days, Antarctica is their boardroom.

The guests, dubbed the Three Sirs, are on the Ice to talk about the future of Antarctic science, and the role the newly formed New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI) will play.


They have a busy schedule of site visits and discussions. They will head to McMurdo Station, over the hill, to check out the Americans' sprawling science laboratory. They will see Discovery Hut at Hut Point, visit the Kiwi-owned atmospheric science laboratory at Arrival Heights, walk 200 metres up Observation Hill and ride in a Hagglund across the Ross Ice Shelf.

Sir Paul, president of the Royal Society in central London, will also give an informal talk at the Scott Base bar - The Tatty Flag - one night, about the 17-year research project that led to his Nobel Prize. He will have a captive audience and a glass of wine on hand.

NZARI was formed last year, with a seeding grant of just over $5 million from United States multi-millionaire businessman and philanthropist Julian Robertson.

Robertson describes himself as "part-Kiwi", and has an honorary New Zealand knighthood for his other acts of generosity.

His charitable vehicle, the Robertson Foundation, is headed by New Zealander John Hood, former vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland and Oxford University.

The Three Sirs have been invited to the Ice because, simply, they are influential people. They are joined by Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment general manager of science investments Dr Prue Williams, NZARI director Professor Gary Wilson, and Antarctica New Zealand science manager Dr Ed Butler.

Prof Wilson's email address is NZARI's head office. It's a virtual office, so today it's in the Scott Base lounge, overlooking the Ross Ice Shelf on a cloudy day.

There is a completed 1000-piece Jim Zuckerman puzzle on the coffee table, two New Scientist magazines, a North and South and Scott Base's pithy in-house magazine, The Antarctican.

Dr Butler, who is sitting on an armchair across from his colleague, says the seeds for NZARI were sewn at an Antarctica New Zealand board meeting about three years ago.

The board was discussing the state of funding for Antarctic science in New Zealand and everyone agreed it was fragmented, with a lot of moving parts.

Antarctic science might get three grants from the Government's Marsden Fund a year, Dr Butler says, "but we can't direct that". Rather, that's for universities or Crown Research Institutes to do.

"They [researchers] might want to look at the left front leg of an Antarctic arthropod or something, so it's more curiosity driven than big-question driven. It's very specific, and there's no requirement for people with Marsdens to link in with other work."

Antarctica NZ board chairman Rob Fenwick "knew a guy called John Hood", and "we got talking to John about what we could do with a small amount of funding for Antarctic science, and how it would make a real step-change in what it was we did. It would be a game-changer".

The head of the Robertson Foundation was interested, and after more chin-wagging, he decided it was a good thing for the foundation to support.

"It's fantastic to have a cornerstone investor, but now the real challenge is to get other people interested," Dr Butler says.

Soon after NZARI got the go-ahead from the Robertson Foundation, it set in place a memorandum of understanding with Prince Albert II of Monaco "to work collaboratively on Antarctic stuff".

Air New Zealand also came on board, pledging about $1m and inviting the new institute, an independent charitable trust, to leverage its profile by using the company's social networking presence.

"They have the second largest following of people on Twitter in New Zealand after the All Blacks, interestingly."

NZARI was launched at Premier House in Wellington on August 20.

"The PM ponied up and launched it. It was quite a good evening," Dr Butler says, turning to Prof Wilson.

"Did we appoint you after that?"

"No, you appointed me two hours before that."

Prof Wilson is passionate about the NZARI, so much so that he is stepping away from his role as head of the marine science department at the University of Otago to be the institute's half-time director.

"There's a real push to make sure that we're answering big questions that are important to New Zealand. This is an amazing opportunity for Antarctic science, and we've got to make it work. If we don't start working on this scale, we've got a lot to lose."

Prof Wilson, who has done several research stints on the ice and worked on multinational collaborations such as the Andrill project, says the pre-NZARI funding landscape was "quite fractured".

"The pots of money have traditionally been quite small. It has meant that the capacity is only to do quite small projects on quite small things, and it's so competitive that people don't work together. Collaborations allow us to solve much bigger problems, but over-competition for small amounts of money is destructive."

So what are these so-called "big questions"? It's a phrase Prof Wilson will repeat nearly half a dozen times in an interview.

He says Antarctica drives several elements of a global climate and ocean system that directly impact New Zealand.

This system, in turn, directly affects primary industries such as fisheries and agriculture.

"It's simple stuff, like if you melt ice, it raises the sea level, which impacts on our whole coastline and operation.

"Antarctica drives this global circulation of ocean water, and that global circulation flows directly across the New Zealand submerged landmass.

"The westerly winds and the climate are directly linked to that. There's this whole integrated system, but the engine is right out that window," he says, waving his hand towards the whiteness.

The challenge is, and has always been, getting people on the mainland and the holders of the Government's purse strings to care about Antarctica.

Antarctica NZ, for this reason, has a large focus on outreach - hence, its artist-in-residence and media programmes. It wants the Great White to be part of the New Zealand psyche.

"Antarctica is this imaginary thing that is not connected to your daily life and that you have little experience of. Often this means that when we're thinking about the significant issues that we need to work on back in New Zealand, we tend to be introverts and say, ‘This affects my life every day - the fact that that blimmin' road has not been repaired and I have to drive around it'.

"That's the most significant thing in people's lives. What will happen is a change of climate will hit them by surprise," Prof Wilson says.

That's another reason the Three Sirs and Dr Prue Williams are at Scott Base just after breakfast on a Tuesday morning, preparing to go for a drive across the Ross Ice Shelf in a Hagglund.

"We can talk about plans, but it's really important to see that in the right context, because that allows you to get a sense of scale, uncertainty, and vulnerability to change."

NZARI will pay for about 50 scientists to travel to Auckland for the institute's first large workshop in March.

Interested scientists are invited to submit applications to take part, outlining how they might help reduce uncertainty around the effects of climate change on New Zealand and the rest of the world.

Dr Butler says NZARI has a star-studded lineup of international "Antarctic science rockstars" on its science panel, which will peer review its efforts.

"These are the best Antarctic scientists in the world.

"They know what needs to be done, and they saw this as something they wanted to be associated with."

Prof Wilson says there will be at least five NZARI projects under way in Antarctica next summer, with a larger interdisciplinary programme in the pipeline.

"We'll write one communal proposal per large-scale programme, with multiple institutions and investigators and much higher levels of funding," he says.

It's all happening at pace, for a reason.

"Yes, we have a lot of people studying different components to understand how the system is working now, but NZARI is about being able to predict what the future holds.

"Are we going to melt ice, at what rate and how will that affect New Zealand?

"There's huge urgency. We can't wait. We have got to get on with it," Prof Wilson says.

Scientists spoken to in hallways, the library, and in between meals at Scott Base are positive about NZARI, saying anything that will feed more money into Antarctic research has to be good.

Dr Phil Lyver, of Landcare Research, who is heading to Cape Bird to study Adelie penguins in a day or so, says Antarctic science has traditionally suffered from a lack of funding and support.

"That's science in general in New Zealand. You'd probably hear that from every scientist," he says, with a smile.

With NZARI, he would like to see "full transparency", independent reviews of projects and "as much participation by the different science groups as possible".

"I guess it's about everyone being able to feed at the trough."

Prof Gluckman, on his second trip to the Ice, always with a camera in hand, is also enthusiastic about the new institute.

On his way to a free lunch at the mess at McMurdo Station, he says New Zealand science has been "destroyed by institutionalism".

Scientists are competing against each other for small amounts of funding.

He calls research in Antarctica "big science", which relies heavily on logistics and infrastructure.

While Antarctica NZ is a "phenomenally good operation", the other side of the coin - science funding - is fragmented.

"It's just incredible what they [Antarctica NZ] achieve.

"It must be one of the most brilliant research logistics exercises anywhere in the world.

"On the other hand, the science has been funded by what individual universities want to do, with small research grants here and there, international collaborations, Marsden grants.

"There's a danger that the most important research can fall between the cracks, just because it doesn't get co-ordinated.

"I think that since 1992, the New Zealand science system has not been promoting collaborative research very well.

"It has been a very, very competitive system. That's starting to change."

Prof Gluckman, Key's chief science adviser, says NZARI creates a forum and a structure for a co-ordinated approach, allowing New Zealand to answer some of the questions it needs Antarctic research to address.

"At the end of the day, while most New Zealanders don't understand it, the way New Zealand's economy and environment operate are very much dependant on what happens on the Antarctic continent.

"If we don't worry about this interaction between the Antarctic and New Zealand, nobody else will."