French polar science held back by lack of resources and visibility | Polarjournal
Dumont d’Urville, French Antarctic coastal scientific base (Picture : Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

An information report published by the Committee on Finance, the General Economy and Budgetary Control outlines the budgetary contours of France’s polar strategy and points to a lack of resources and visibility to meet its ambitions.

Is the stereotype of polar science being just all white with frost on the hood, or is it perceived as a huge spender of financial means? It’s neither as in early June, the French Finance, General Economy and Budgetary Control Committee published an information report on polar research in France pointing out that the French Polar institutes lack the funding to carry out their main research and to maintain their international reputation and influence.

The list is a long one: The French Polar Institute’s crew for convoys of vehicles crossing the Antarctic between Dumont d’Urville and Concordia is understaffed. The Institute’s head office in Brest is also short of people. The provision of staff from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) has been reduced. The Institute estimates that the current state subsidy of 15.2 million euros needs to be increased to 21 million for it to operate properly.

Concordia Station, 3,233 meters above sea level, resting on the ice dome (Picture: ESA)

The situation is no better for the French stations, where the renovation of Dumont d’Urville is estimated to cost around 100 million euros to improve its thermal insulation and environmental footprint. The Franco-Italian station Concordia is in a similar situation, and is set to receive a total of 33.9 million euros for work scheduled between 2020 and 2030. The report states that the French Polar Institute has already spent 5.61 million euros, but has not yet received anything from the French government, which promised 15 million.

Nautical resources

And there’s more coming from French ocean science labs who also need a nautical resource: an icebreaker solely equipped for research. They would like to conduct their own oceanological campaigns, close to the pack ice or adrift in the ice in winter. Until then, they are developing projects with other countries, aboard their vessels, and trading results.

According to Mickaël Bouloux, the commission’s main representative, this investment would amount to between 100 and 200 million euros additionally. For comparison: Germany plans to invest 1 billion euros to replace its research and supply icebreaker Polarstern.

The latest French ice-going vessel: the Astrolabe (Picture: Cecile Pozzo, Wikicommons)

Even so, France has an ice-class vessel capable of reaching Antarctica, the Astrolabe. The vessel is part of the French Navy, and the French Polar Institute already charters it 120 days a year to supply Dumont-d’Uville. The idea of fitting out the Astrolabe for oceanographic science would be an alternative in Antarctica. Yet it would not work for the Arctic, since the vessel also carries out naval duties near the French Overseas Territories in the Indian Ocean.

Additionally, agreements between the French institute Ifremer and Canada could provide access to the Canadian icebreaker Amundsen, in exchange for privileged access to the French sub-Antarctic territories, or to other oceanographic vessels.

Furthermore, there is a fleet of private “vessels of opportunity” occasionally providing services such as the trimaran Arctic Lab and the monohull Vagabond. And although the latter has been plotting routes around the Arctic for 20 years measuring. the thickness of the pack ice, for example, or diving under the ice, it’s hardly enough to meet the expectations and needs of the French Polar science community.

The report further lists the latest vessel, Ponant’s Commandant Charcot, as a vessel of opportunity but clearly states its short-comings. Ponant usually allocates 4 places on board for scientists to access polar regions. According to the document, this represents only 1.63% of passengers and “the risk of such a vessel would be that of greenwashing”, states the report.

The Commandant Charcot, provides “as many jacuzzis as there are researchers”, according to the report by the Committee on Finance, the General Economy and Budgetary Control (Picture: Ponant)

The report further notes that this ship is not able to carry out proper scientific campaigns, only opportunity operations. In his Polar Strategy for 2030, French polar ambassador Oliver Poivre d’Arvor stipulated that it would not replace the services of an oceanographic icebreaker, but would be “a timely and nice addition”.

“The main problem with such vessels of opportunity is the selection of scientific programmes, because official research reequires a certain process,” explains Anne Choquet, a lawyer specialising in polar law and director of the French National Committee for Arctic and Antarctic Research. This committee brings together most of the research laboratories working at the poles.

Last May, Jean-Charles Larsonneur, a French MP and member of the commission responsible for drawing up the polar strategy, expressed his concern about the political stability of the poles, pointing out that science also had a role to play in this respect. “We must not forget the role of the human and social sciences in this area,” comments Anne Choquet.

In Antarctica, the only base comparable to the deep inland stations Vostok (Russia) and Amundsen-Scott (USA) is Concordia, operated jointly byFrance and Italy. But will the base still be useful once the station’s flagship project, Beyond Epica, has been completed? Annual maintenance of the polar station is estimated at €10 million a year. The French Polar Institute is opposed to the idea of dismantling it, which would cost several million euros. Its transfer to another nation would undoubtedly have geopolitical repercussions.

A problem of visibility

Next to the financial problem, the report also criticizes the lack of visibility of French Polar research among politicians and the general public, who thus fail to grasp the scale of the issues at stake. France has a wealth of polar experts on whom the media and politicians could draw, but many scientists often have little time or interest to make themselves known, as they are concentrating on finding funding.

“Polar science can make people dream, and that’s fine, but there are plenty of less sensational, very important subjects that the media don’t cover enough, perhaps because they’re less apprehensive,” adds Anne Choquet. These sparsely populated areas possess a wealth of sought-after resources. As a result, new routes for transporting goods and data could change the balance of power between nations. In this context, researchers are questioning, for example, the sharing of information recorded by observatories, fisheries or maritime law. Indeed, protecting the environment and climate is the main international agenda for maintaining diplomatic equilibrium in the polar regions.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

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