Four hundred and fifty million euros to stay influential in the poles | Polarjournal
The Concordia Station LIDAR explores the atmospheric boundary layer. Image : ESA / Institut Polaire Français / PNRA / S. Thoolen

A proposed lawl brings polar research budgets in line with France’s historic ambitions in these regions, currently in the hands of the French Commission for Cultural Affairs and Education.

On July 20, a multi-party study group at the Assemblée Nationale tabled a bill entitled “Programmation polaire pour les années 2024 à 2030”, in which the MPs estimate a €449.4 million budget is needed to put France back at the polar round table, maintain the French presence in Antarctica and develop new research programs in line with international developments.

“For several years now, French polar research has been suffering from a lack of investment, both in human and financial terms, the consequence of which will be to limit, in the medium term, France’s ability to make its mark in the concert of polar nations if it doesn’t act now,” announces point 3 of the accompanying report. The draft law aims to give the French Polar Institute and its research programs a facelift, and the opportunity to plan ahead with greater confidence.

The issues at stake are not only environmental knowledge and protection – in terms of both climate and biodiversity – but also diplomacy. Indeed, last May in Paris, at the “Journées des Sciences” organized by CNFRAA, the French polar science community, Jean-Charles Larsonneur, MP for Brest and co-author of the proposed law, recalled that scientific involvement in the field is an excellent diplomatic lever for stabilizing tensions and keeping international discussions moving in the direction of the common good.

Tensions over krill

Hot topics of discussion among Antarctic polar nations include krill and lanternfish harvests. For krill, catches have doubled in 10 years, reaching 450,000 tonnes a year. The biomass of lanternfish is the largest of any mesopelagic fish in the Southern Ocean. These animals are coveted and dependent on sea ice cover. This is why the proposed law takes into account the desire to have a French oceanographic vessel with ice capacity launched, capable of monitoring and establishing a French presence around these resources.

The French Navy icebreaker Astrolabe is not in a position to take on oceanographic missions off the coast of Terre Adélie; it is used full-time and carries out defense and logistic missions. “We need to be able to do oceanography in 10- to 15-day missions,” argues French Polar Institute director Yan Ropert-Coudert, “and be ready for the major scientific initiatives of 2027, steered by the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research, which will set in motion an international protocol, sincronising measurements on land and at sea, and bring together all the nations like Germany, the UK, Australia and Norway.” The proposed law would thus place France back among the influential states involved in these emerging issues, as it was for climate change.

New energy standards

Partly unveiled by French polar scientists, embodied by Claude Lorius, climate change is now forcing science to take the next step: decarbonizing. According to the report, the French polar research station Dumont-d’Urville, soon to celebrate its 70th anniversary, will have to be completely refitted. “We’re working on plans for a single building, taking inspiration from what’s already being done elsewhere in terms of renewable energy and building materials, in order to reduce fuel consumption,” adds Yan Ropert-Coudert.

The budget plan for France’s polar action, in millions of euros, divided into 5 expenditure items. Graphic: Camille Lin / Flourish

Infrastructure is vital to meet the needs of the scientists who run projects in the field. Renovation of measurement tools is just as vital – physics measurements, like the SuperDARN antenna on Kerguelen, which probes the ionosphere, or the ASTEP telescope, which observes solar systems other than our own. “Research planning is good for committing to big long-term instruments, but we need to remain flexible and be able to seize an opportune moment, such as the appearance of a new technology, or a new field of research, which is why we need to provide an unallocated budget envelope”, rounds up the director.

The latter was consulted by the parliamentary delegation who brought together polar stakeholders prior to the drafting of this bill. While representatives of the social sciences and humanities were listened to, their needs in terms of developing political and legal tools and quality pole governance were not precisely defined. Their work would be crucial in advising the Comité interministériel des pôles (CIPOL), which the report proposes to create. Who else but polar lawyers could make an effective case at the negotiating table? Behind every scientist is a diplomat, but who would really be able to prepare a science policy if not a skilled speaker?

The draft law is now in the hands of “the Committee on Cultural Affairs and Education, in the absence of a special committee”, according to the MPs.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to the bill (in French): “Programmation polaire pour les années 2024 à 2030

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