As I have been asked by a number of people about the latest Office of Inspector General’s report, and in the case of Wired they interviewed me and generated a very cherry picked set of quotes designed for maximum clickbait, allow me to share my collected thoughts about it here. TL;DR version: the NSF response to the audit is good and proper in my opinion, not that my opinion is all that important, though I’d worry about breathalyzers a bit.
- Remember there are three different groups of people going to Antarctica under the auspices of the National Science Foundation: grantees (research staff paid by NSF grant, AKA beakers, from various institutions around the world), contractor (station support staff paid by any of a number of management contractors and subcontractors), and military (the Air National Guard provides flight support and the Navy Cargo & Handling Group does ship offload). That said, the NSF has overarching responsibility for all the operations going on there.
- Compared to contractor personnel, grantees going to the continent have a “license to kill”. This is not to say they are unsupervised or lack any repercussions for their actions, but the chain of command over them and enforcement for infractions is looser. This is supposed to be intentional over the whole population to leave the latitude to manage a small and remote crew with as much flexibility as possible through the long winter. The NSF Code of Conduct is a set of guidelines that no contractor is allowed to be looser than, but in practice the contractor has much more management staff on site to enforce their corporate policies, which tend to be more strict than the NSF. It’s a matter of perspective.
In my opinion, the NSF has been doing the right things to keep things open enough that the program is responsive to needs as they arise. Codify things too tightly in the safety of an office back at home and you may be inadequately prepared for problems as they come up.
- The station managers are deputized as special Deputy US Marshals to deal with the worst contingencies of human behavior that can happen in a remote place. This isn’t exactly law enforcement and it sure isn’t part of the day to day duties of a station manager; it’s an emergency response role. Response to incidents that require using this aspect of their duties is something I suspect is documented quite well and rare.
- The idea of using of breathalyzers for cause by managers to insure fitness for duty isn’t all that out of the ordinary anywhere in the American workplace, particularly under government contract. The weird thing for the Antarctic stations is that your workplace also is your home. What you do in your own time should be up to you, but for South Pole Station the population is small enough that there are no separate emergency responders. If you’re in no shape to respond to an alarm going off, that’s a tricky problem. Can I be upset with you for not being respond outside of your regular work hours?
During work hours, just like anywhere else in the world, if you’re staggering up to a piece of heavy equipment because you just had a three martini lunch, people are going to notice and have cause. If you’re so badly hungover from the night before that you can’t clearly see which buttons do what on a console, same deal, testing for cause. Your boss would be delinquent in their duties if they didn’t pull you aside and send you to the doc.
- Now, whether those breathalyzers are going to work properly on the Antarctic Plateau is another question entirely. You’re hard pressed to get most manufacturers to certify equipment for high altitude, very low humidity, or temperatures below -40 and without that certification any actions you take based on the results will lack foundation. Hell, I couldn’t even get the manufacturer of my “arctic expedition grade sunglasses” to give me assurance that they wouldn’t fall apart at Pole. That said, it can be done, but it’s going to require some testing. The contractor says they’ve found one that will work without calibration so all the better. Where there’s a will there’s a way to make this happen for almost any gear.
- The bar culture of Antarctica is not a bad thing and it had the best interests of the crew in mind when established by the US Navy. Thousands of jokes about sailors aside, the Navy has long experience of how to manage crews in tight quarters, morale building, and how to blow off steam. Acknowledging that people were going to drink, the bars were created make sure they were drinking safe booze rather than homebrew hooch (which happens when you go “dry”) and to bring people together to reduce consumption. You might not think of a bar as a place for moderation of drinking, but it gives your fellow crewmates a chance to watch out for you. If you’re drinking alone in your room, and hoo nelly is that a bad sign, there isn’t any potential for the positive aspects of peer pressure to help rein you in or ask if you’re doing alright.
When I got asked why I wouldn’t cut people off, it’s because I was much happier for them to pass out in front of me in the warmth and safety of the bar than have them “finish the job” alone or, worse, lose consciousness in the cold on their way back to their room. Really, the bar is a safety mechanism.