The Secret History of ANSMET, part 1: money

Subtitle:  Where there’s some “fun” in “funding”……

Me, dreaming of meteorite riches next to a rock dune at Mt. Buckley. (from 2010, taken by Karen Hilton).

With no fieldwork taking place this season,   it seems like a good time for some posts that answer questions that many (but not all of you) are too polite to ask.   Our first topic is funding-  that nasty, competitive zero-sum game that every scientific research project (well, almost every project) engages in to survive.

Given that ANSMET has been continuously funded for almost 5 decades (!), there are certainly some unique aspects to our situation; and  while I hope to provide a detailed overview, let me set a couple of ground rules before I dive in.

First, I’ll be discussing financial support in this post, not other forms of support such as that from the science community, logistical support, etc.  I will try to address those later.  ANSMET’s overall support structure has evolved in complex ways, and can be difficult to understand without some careful deconstruction.  If you find I’ve glossed over something, I probably have!  But be patient,  and don’t hesitate to email me if some omission really bothers you.

Second, I’m going to avoid discussing finances in terms of dollars, except in very coarse ways. Digging deeper into how governments fund science quickly reveals that a tax dollar spent on a gallon of fuel in Antarctica for a military-grade aircraft is not equivalent to a dollar spent on a university administrator’s rental car in Iowa. As a result, I don’t know the exchange rate between an ANSMET dollar we control and one from your research grant (and I sincerely hope you have one).  By not describing things in terms of dollars,  I hope to avoid misleading equivalencies.    Again,  if you think I’m covering up or mischaracterizing something important, please let me know and I promise I’ll listen to your concerns and maybe even address them.

 ANSMET funding today (like RIGHT NOW)

Happy New Year!   I am glad to report that ANSMET was recently chosen for funding for another 5 austral summer field seasons,  starting later this year (2023-24) and running through 2027-28. That will officially bring the project through our 50th anniversary.  Currently we’re in an extension that bridges the gap between the new grant and our previous awards.  Like previous proposals our latest was competitively reviewed, this time with support coming from the cleverly-named YORPD (Yearly Opportunities for Research in Planetary Defense) program.  Like previous iterations, the new grant funds ANSMET leadership personnel (myself, Jim Karner, John Schutt and Brian Rougeux), travel, field supplies that aren’t provided by the US Antarctic program, and provides financial support at a level that should provide for yearly  expeditions and a rate of Antarctic meteorite recoveries similar to what you’ve seen in the past.

There are some changes,  however, among the biggest of which is that I’m stepping down as PI.   Jim Karner (who has shared co-PI duties with me for the past 5 years) will be sole PI on the new grant, and I’ll drop to Co-I status.  The new grant will be run out of the University of Utah (Go Utes!).   In a future blog post  I’ll be talking at length about the roles played by ANSMET leadership personnel, so stay tuned and you’ll hear more.

Financial Support Structure

Before we talk about the history of ANSMET funding, I want to talk about “hidden” costs a bit;  those parts of our funding support that aren’t seen in our grant’s bottom line but nonetheless are significant.  In this way, the ANSMET program can be more like a human space mission or DoD effort, with the costs spread out between different government agencies. These costs rapidly become difficult for those outside the government, even a PI,  to keep track of (let along an interested taxpayer).

In the case of ANSMET,  the biggest hidden cost is Antarctic logistics. The reason these costs are hidden is that exchange rate issue I mentioned earlier- it’s always tough to count dollars when different parts of the government fund each other, and there are lots of different agencies involved in the US Antarctic Program (USAP).   Since the late 1950’s the National Science Foundation has been tasked by Congress with managing all US-led activities in Antarctica, across the board (through USAP), so even though NASA is our source for the cash that supports university-led activities,  USAP supplies us with, well, everything in Antarctica.   For all practical purposes USAP is a wholly-owned subsidary of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs and so ANSMET’s Antarctic needs are supported through NSF,  with the costs (or prices) set by their leadership personnel and the contractors that work for them.  The bottom line is this-  while ANSMET gets a grant from YORPD that covers our costs outside Antarctica,  YORPD also gets an invoice from NSF detailing every cost ANSMET incurs  in Antarctica, billed to NASA after the season.   A few months after each season is done, somewhere magical (Oz? Narnia? Hogwarts? 300 E Street SW, Washington, DC?),  an undisclosed number of US tax dollars will be transported from one agency’s accounts to the others, and the bill is declared settled.

I’ve been lucky enough to see this bill a few times, back when NASA first started supporting the reconnaissance field work in the late 1990’s and again when NASA took over supporting all the field work in the mid-2010’s.  Some of the early bills were astonishingly, even frighteningly comprehensive.  They including not only obvious things like aircraft time, fuel, camping gear, food, snowmobile “rental”, etc. but also things only a true finance or tax mogul could love, like amortization of Twin Otter aircraft value due to the more damaging nature of our open-field landings and taking into account any associated up-costs reduced by mechanic’s effort.   To say the costs add-up quickly is an understatement, even if you ignore that whole “exchange-rate” argument I made earlier.  Let’s just say that while ANSMET is a great return on the government-tax-dollars investment, and many orders of magnitude cheaper than a lot of other missions NASA spends money on, the bottom-line cost is still very high for a university-based research project.  I should also make it clear that I think NSF’s support prices in the bills I’ve seen were actually quite reasonable when compared to what one would have to pay for similar logistical support from a private company in Antarctica (and yes, there are private sources of Antarctic logistics, supporting tourist and non-governmental trips).

The 1970’s and 1980’s

The earliest history of ANSMET funding is described in wonderful detail by the late Ursula Marvin’s chapter in our book “35 Seasons of U.S. Antarctic Meteorites (1976-2010): A Pictoral Guide to the Collection” (by Righter et al., 2015)  so I won’t reproduce it here.   But I will briefly summarize the basics-  the late Bill Cassidy (founder of ANSMET, from the University of Pittsburgh) started writing proposals to conduct Antarctic meteorite searches in 1974 and his proposals were rejected 3 times before NSF finally chose to fund the first trip (as a joint project with Japan’s National Institute for Polar Research) in late 1976.

Less well known is how awkward the program’s funding structure was for several years immediately afterward.  Most US-led Antarctic field work has been competitively-funded, which in turn means that scientists and their institutions have a vested interest in the reaping the rewards of the research, whether in terms of recognition, samples or publications.  Certainly that was the plan for ANSMET’s first season;  after splitting the meteorites with the Japanese,  Cassidy would bring his share back to the University of Pittsburgh and set up a classification lab.  BUT……  it was also very clear to NSF that ANSMET’s success would almost certainly lead to proposals for field work from many research institutions where meteorites were a valuable material for research and display. Bill Cassidy knew that while he had a one-year head start in the new science of Antarctic Meteorite Recovery fieldwork,  he was not nearly as favorably positioned in terms of meteorite characterization and curation, so long-term funding for ANSMET was not certain at all.

The potential for this hypothetical gold-rush-like pursuit of funding for Antarctic meteorite searches was  alarming to NSF, given the demand for logistics was already maxing out the supply.  Bill helped push some (admittedly) closed-door, back-room deals struck between NSF, The Smithsonian, and NASA, who together agreed to create the altruistic US Antarctic Meteorite program you know and love today.  The deal they struck,  still called the “Three Agency Agreement”,  stated that NSF’s Polar Programs would fund Bill to run the ANSMET field work to recover Antarctic meteorites,  NASA’s Johnson Space Program would do initial characterization and curation,  and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History would do detailed classification and long-term curation.  The price these three parties would pay in return for the arrangement  would be to give up any preferential access to the samples for their own research. We’ll talk more about this mutual support arrangement in a future post.

If that funding arrangement sounds a little bit unfair, even crony-ish by modern standards, that’s because it was*.  From the 70’s on through to about the mid-nineties, all three parts of this structure were subject to competitive funding cycles within established, peer-reviewed programs;  but at the same time, the language of the Three Agency Agreement pretty-much specified the duties could only be fulfilled by these specific institutions.  The result was that  anyone actively competing against ANSMET, JSC or the Smithsonian for one of the roles would in effect have to be fully equivalent.  In truth, ANSMET faced a lot more potential competition for its role than for JSC or NMNH did for theirs,  given the latter’s roles require major facilities and all ANSMET fieldwork needs, really,  is the right personnel.  And several times during this era,  competitive proposals for Antarctic meteorite recovery were submitted and (at least once) even solicited;  the latter I think was an honest attempt to address the favoritism issue. I am also aware of a few less visible attempts to,  for lack of a better word,  “commandeer” one or more of the  Three Agency roles outside of any competitive, peer-reviewed process. Presumably these were based on the often-heard semi-political premise that new leadership (from another institution or government agency) could make things cheaper, better, more-efficient, etc.   Luckily, by the early 80’s the US Antarctic Meteorite system under the Three Agency agreement was so demonstratively effective, and so beneficial to planetary science,  that the “let’s not  screw up a good thing” doctrine won out each time.

The 1990’s and 2000’s

By the early nineties, the Three Agency agreement was starting to show its age.  Not only was some of the nepotistic language now technically illegal (such the parts that named specified individuals to get funding), but some of the agencies themselves were not happy with their roles.  Specifically,  NSF’s Polar Programs, although mandated to support Antarctic Field work, didn’t view ANSMET’s scientific returns as a part of their overall mission (which had begun to turn strongly toward climate change). Polar Programs was thus eager to reduce their costs for ANSMET, wanting its dollars to be spent on research about Antarctica,  not simply in Antarctica.

The result was some difficult times for ANSMET funding. In spite of two decades of increasing productivity of our field efforts and continued astonishing science returns (like the first martian meteorites, first lunar meteorites, and an exploding catalog of new meteorite lithologies), ANSMET’s budgets were being trimmed.   For me personally,  as a young scientist poised to take over the program (I became the field party leader in 1991, and took over as PI in 1994), that was extremely challenging.  Like most in my position, external funding mattered a lot- I needed enough salary support out of the grant to not only cover the time involved, but also make my university’s investment in me worthwhile. The first ANSMET grant I submitted from Case Western was thread-bare and skinny,  in an attempt to get NSF to fund it for 5 years instead of 3 (I really needed some job security).  But before NSF made the final offer of award,  they tried to negotiate an even lower bottom line.  I literally told them I would have to refuse the award completely rather than let ANSMET become unsustainable. That was a really hard thing for someone to say who was (at the time) supporting themselves wholly on soft-money,  but it was the truth- had I let NSF dictate the value of ANSMET’s work at that moment,  and the path of my career,  neither of us would have recovered.  We compromised on full funding but for a shorter period.

Luckily,  things turned around pretty quickly.   1996 was a very special year for ANSMET, highlighted by the claims in August that ALH 84001 contained signs of martian biological activity.  My relationship to that rock is a topic for a later post; but in terms of funding support for ANSMET,  the frenzy over an ANSMET specimen was an undeniable justification of our efforts.  It is only a slight overstatement to say that money was being thrown at me;  I literally had NASA program managers (from multiple programs) asking what they could give us that would get them more martian meteorites.   When asked,  my response was fairly simple- fund more people in the field,  and in particular fund multiple field parties, including more reconnaissance so we could identify and prioritize the most concentrated meteorite recovery sites**.

NASA’s first response to this was hilarious and on-the-nose;  the program manager replied “We were thinking of a meteorite-hunting robot……”  and indeed they proceeded to fund NOMAD, a program costing 10x ANSMET’s yearly budget.  As you can probably guess I was not as amused then as I am now, given how close ANSMET had come to losing its funding.  But it’s hard to argue with progress, and NSF was suddenly a lot more cooperative, so in my role as PI of ANSMET, I chose to cooperate with NOMAD (note I did not use the word “collaborate”).  We graciously loaned our best meteorite-finding tool to the NOMAD project (the human, John Schutt). Turns out John could find more meteorites on his lunch break than NOMAD could all season.  Who woulda thought?   And John needs very little maintenance.

To NASA’s credit,  they came back not long after,  and asked again what they could provide to get them more martian meteorites.  My response was the same; more field parties, more people, more reconnaissance. This time they listened,  and a wholly-NASA-funded ANSMET reconnaissance team was born.  From about 1999 to 2008 ANSMET fielded two teams each year, one funded by NSF to conduct systematic meteorite recoveries from well-known icefields, and one funded by NASA making first- and second-visits to less-well-known sites,  with the goal of establishing either the presence of meteorite concentrations or their extent.  Many of the really important meteorite recovery sites ANSMET has worked in the last 20 years were first explored in detail by this second team, including the Miller Range, LaPaz, Davis-Ward, and a host of others.  But from a financial viewpoint,  something equally important happened-  the value of the incredible skill sets of our leadership personnel was recognized as perishable and worth preserving.  NASA’s steady support for the reconnaissance team let us create stable positions for our field safety personnel, so that they’d WANT to work for ANSMET rather than just choose to.  For the first time in ANSMET’s history, John Schutt became a “real” employee, not just a hired gun for a season;  and we hired a second mountaineer as well, putting serious effort into finding individuals who’d stick with us for multiple seasons (though that took a while).  It also let me hire a post-doc to serve as a second science lead, helping manage the efforts of multiple field parties without adding to the mountaineer’s burden.

In this time period,  ANSMET transformed fairly quickly from a one-person show with a side-kick into a rockin’ four-person ensemble (and sometimes more), all invested teammates covering the groove and making the concert work (admittedly a concert that was 8 weeks long, but I digress).   This was the rebirth of the ANSMET project into the structure we maintain today;  from a financial viewpoint it was a new era of stability.  Dual funding (from both USAP and NASA),  while a chore for the PI to maintain,  made sense for an Antarctic field project gathering samples from space.

I want to add one more anecdote to my description of this time period, when ANSMET funding transformed so dramatically. The amazing visibility of ALH 84001 research across the newslines led NSF to create their own short-lived program supporting research on that meteorite. Humorously, in 1997 the same program manager who had tried to negotiate ANSMET’s bottom line down to unsustainable levels called me and asked why they hadn’t seen my proposal and asked if I needed more time! They seemed taken aback when I informed them no proposal was forthcoming. EXACTLY what I said will not also be talked about in a later post;  suffice it to say it was not a statement of cold, objective fact, but rather an emotion-charged directive concerning the value of their support.

Summertime Blues– the 2010’s.

Even though ANSMET’s bottom line was dramatically better by the early 2010’s,  growth doesn’t always lead to stability, even when you’ve practically got a monopoly (and my apologies if to any deep-end capitalist friends of ANSMET that disagree with me).  2008 marked a distinct downturn in the US’s economy with some challenging effects for universities, and led to some particular issues for ANSMET.  Our proposal to NSF in 2008 was chosen for funding, and while (thankfully) there was no attempt by them to negotiate our bottom line downward, they did make a choice that would soon become awkward.  Instead of funding us directly from NSF’s Polar Programs budget,  they took the money from 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA),  a stimulus program put together by then-president Obama that quickly became a favorite target of his opponents.  The choice to fund ANSMET out of ARRA funds led to a lot of scrutiny and had a lot of oversight attached with some negative side effects.   It reached a first peak in August of 2010 when two prominent Republican Senators (Tom Coburn and John McCain) included ANSMET in their publication Summertime Blues,  which they subtitled “100 stimulus projects that give taxpayers the blues”.  ANSMET was number 75 on their list of projects, and labelled us as a waste because, ostensibly, “…. in some parts of the country you have a better chance of seeing a meteor shower than getting a job“.   Humorously, I was the only scientist shown in person in the report, which included a picture of a much-younger me in front of an antarctic meteorite find.

There was more humor to come-  the Coburn-McCain report came out while I was at a science meeting, and the Cleveland-based media at home had frantically tried to contact me (note this is pre-smartphone). So I frantically prepared a response while on the plane back home. On arrival the next day,  I graciously let the media know I was available,  fully prepared to defend ANSMET’s integrity (and the fact that we didn’t seek out ARRA funding). But it turned out they didn’t care- it was already “old news” even though only 24 hours old.  The best thing that resulted?  I got a couple of calls from lawmakers (from both NE Ohio and DC)  who were old friends of ANSMET,  who let me know that when the Republicans hate you,  you’re probably doing something right***.

The decision by NSF to provide ANSMET’s funding from ARRA was deliberate, however, and a harbinger of things to come. Effectively,  NSF’s choice meant that they were no longer directly supporting ANSMET’s university-based activities.  It had been clear since the cutbacks in the 90’s that NSF’s Antarctic program leadership were funding ANSMET more through their obligations in the Three Agency Agreement than through choice. And in all honesty, ANSMET didn’t fit the stated (or unstated) mission statements of their programs very well- NSF leadership felt our Antarctic fieldwork was not really “research” from their perspective of answering science questions their programs prioritized.  On top of that they were facing some really severe funding and logistical shortages.  I’ll talk about both these issues in future posts.  The end result for us was that in the spring of 2013,  when our ARRA funding was about to run out and NSF had just finished a cross-program scientific priority-setting exercise, the directors of NSF and Polar Programs announced they would no longer directly fund ANSMET and would not accept future proposals for Antarctic meteorite searches.  They returned my most recent proposal unreviewed, and pretty clearly were done with this nonsense.

Sounds drastic,  and a few people did feel some panic-  but I personally had seen it coming, and had gotten some warnings from DC insiders,  so for me it was more a moment of sad inevitability.  What WAS a surprise was how quickly NASA responded; less than an hour after my formal phone call with NSF ended,  NASA called me to state they would provide whatever funding required to have the season in 2013-14 (with no gaps).

Thus began a few years that could be called  “The Time of the Unsolicited Proposals” (sounds like a darkly romantic drama on Netflix, doesn’t it?).  In a nutshell,  separate funding for a reconnaissance team went away to be replaced by a single omnibus proposal supporting the systematic recoveries and no dedicated reconnaissance efforts in the short term.  These unsolicited proposals are a fairly rare beast, and not one favored by the establishment. While they’re an excellent contingency mechanism by which NASA can support projects opportunistically in the short term, their very existence could invite floods of submissions that have no relationship to NASA goals.  So even though these unsolicited proposals played a key role in supporting ANSMET finances, allowing us to continue the work in Antarctica for a few years, NASA was eager to find us a formal home. That turned out to be the YORPD program (and its predecessor) in 2017.   YORPD and Planetary Defense are a good fit for us, in my opinion;  but more on that in a later post.

Today, and tomorrow

Since the switch to sole-support from NASA, we’ve never felt insecure-  there’s been some awkwardness trying to fit us properly into the funding stream,  but NASA gets us.  That said,  there’s been some interesting financial challenges, mostly driven by outside influences that complicate things.  For example, governmental shutdowns and the pandemic have led to a dramatic losses of field time. As you read this we’re missing our third consecutive season, after having lost a whole season only once in the 40 previous years; and on average when we’ve been able to deploy, the field seasons have been significantly shorter because of delays.  Reconnaissance is basically not in the budget,  which is a growing problem for our future.   We worked with our NASA program managers to reduce budgets and stretch funding while still keeping our key people employed (we really didn’t want to see John Schutt take a job at Starbucks, for his safety as well as ours).  From our earliest days we’ve had to deal with some calendar-based cash-flow issues;  when your highest-priority activities take place all at once in the winter it can make us look like a boom-and-bust operation, driving some NASA accountants a little bonkers.  And of course we’re undergoing a transition right now,  with the PI-ship moving to Utah and all the commensurate changes in how the various people are funded.

Are there things that can be done,  financially,   to improve ANSMET’s situation?  For now,  not really.   As long as NASA continues to see our mission as important,  I anticipate us being funded at our current, stable levels.  Our biggest problems are not really financial-  reduced logistical capacities within USAP and ANSMET’s standing within NSF priority-setting for the logistics that remain are serious issues that I’ll discuss later.   Like a lot of PI’s I’ve often daydreamed about the effects more money might have on us-  and honestly?  I don’t think they’d necessarily be positive.  The project is in a nice, intermediate place;  we can maintain an effective field program without having too many mouths to feed, and our logistics needs remain modest when compared to almost every other deep field effort.  Sure, I’d consider a congressional ear-mark that buys ANSMET their own Twin Otter and Basler and  LC-130 and a building or two in McMurdo;  but I’m also almost certain none of that could be sustained for long.

That’s enough for this post.  More “Secret History of ANSMET” is already in preparation.  Again,  don’t hesitate to contact me if you feel something is erroneous, or needs clarification,  or you simply have questions.

-Ralph,   from beautiful but gloomy  Novelty Ohio.


*   While the early funding arrangement for ANSMET really did include some favoritism,  I should remind everyone that the favoritism does not extend to the distribution of the samples.  In fact, the US Antarctic Meteorite program remains unique in NOT allowing any preferential access to the samples by the groups that recover or curate them.  Almost every other planetary sample return mission guarantees some kind of priority to pre-chosen individuals, making the recovered samples available solely to a small team for some set length of time.  This pretty much guarantees they will make all of the first-order, baseline scientific discoveries, observations, analyses and get all the publications.    In contrast, the ANSMET-recovered specimens are available free-of-charge to anyone, without regard to funding or any kind of “chosen” status.  Those of us who collect, initially characterize and curate the samples let others make the first-order discoveries and we don’t get paid back the way a member of a mission team would be.    Personally, I’m proud of this altruism, but at the same time I sometimes jealously wonder what my career would have been like if my name had been on every Antarctic meteorite for the past 30 years…..

** I also mentioned the weird fact that for whatever reason, the most singularly unusual  or rare meteorites from any given site tend to have been found during the first visit or two.  Another great reason for more reconnaissance, but I think it is more coincidence than fact.  I guess I could test this from our historical records…… stay tuned.

***In the interests of full disclosure,  I consider myself a progressive and have voted Democrat since Jimmy Carter was president. To the best of my knowledge the Coburn-McCain publication had no relationship to my personal politics-  it wasn’t an attack on me at all.