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Science suffers in cold war over polar base

The Belgian government owns 99.9% of the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica research station, which is run by a private foundation.

It’s summer in Antarctica, the season for science. But at Belgium’s futuristic research outpost in East Antarctica, not a single Belgian researcher is at work. A protracted dispute between the Belgian government and the private foundation that built and operates the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica research station has resulted in the cancellation of this year’s Belgian expedition to Antarctica. While the country’s polar scientists stew at home, the foundation’s president, celebrity adventurer Alain Hubert, is manning the station with a small crew.

At the heart of the dispute is a straightforward question: Who controls the Princess Elisabeth? The warring parties are not making it easy to find an answer. Some 15 legal actions have been launched between the government and Hubert’s foundation, says a spokesperson for Elke Sleurs, Belgian state secretary for science policy. Accusations about mismanagement, theft, and deceit are flying in the Belgian press.

The contretemps is a blow to scientists. “It’s terrible,” says Nicole van Lipzig of the University of Leuven in Belgium, whose team is missing out on measurements at the station’s cloud observatory. Foreign researchers, too, lament a squandered opportunity. “It’s ridiculous,” says Konrad Steffen, director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) in Birmensdorf, who visited the station to do research in 2012.

The Princess Elisabeth was the brainchild of Hubert, who was the first Belgian to visit the North Pole in 1994 and once traversed Antarctica on foot in a grueling 99-day journey. The government chipped in €6 million; Hubert—“a strong leader who makes things happen,” according to Steffen—raised some €16 million from private investors and saw the construction through. The station was completed in 2007. Three years later, Hubert’s International Polar Foundation (IPF) donated 99.9% of the station’s ownership to the state, which agreed to organize scientific missions and cover operational costs, then estimated at €1 million a year. IPF would run the station day-to-day. The two parties shared governance through a new Polar Secretariat, chaired by Hubert.

The station, perched on an outcrop 500 kilometers from the nearest base, is in an “incredibly interesting area. You can go anywhere,” says Jan Lenaerts of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who published his work on how polar ice and snow interact with the global climate in Nature Climate Change last month. There are massive sheets of melting ice nearby, exposed rocks called nunatuks that might hold clues to the origins of life, and major meteorite fields.

Relations began to sour soon after the 2010 agreement. The government has alleged financial mismanagement at IPF, including soaring costs, conflicts of interest, and improperly documented expenses. In a 2015 report seen by Science, Belgium’s Interfederal Corps of the Inspectorate of Finance said IPF had repeatedly broken agreements and expressed “indignation” at the foundation’s behavior.

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Adventurer Alain Hubert and a small crew are now running the research station that he helped create.


Adventurer Alain Hubert and a small crew are now running the research station that he helped create.

© International Polar Foundation

In 2015, the Belgian government removed Hubert and other IPF representatives from the Polar Secretariat’s strategic council (Science, 21 August 2015, p. 775). For the 2015–16 season, it hired a private company to run the station with support from the Belgian Army. Succeeding Hubert as station manager was Chiara Montanari, an Italian engineer with extensive Antarctica experience.

Hubert fought back in court and scored a dramatic turnaround in 2016. In September, Belgium’s Council of State suspended the decree that had pushed the foundation out of the Polar Secretariat. And in October, a court stopped the government from sending a military maintenance team—already in Cape Town, South Africa, en route to Antarctica—to the station. Instead, Hubert returned to Antarctica in November and remains at the base with a dozen staff. They found the station “in poor shape,” says Hubert’s wife, Nighat Amin, who is IPF’s vice president of international affairs. (Hubert was not available to speak with Science from Antarctica.)

The crevasse between the parties has only widened since then. The Polar Secretariat is no longer functional, and the Belgian government has instructed researchers not to travel to Antarctica, says glaciologist and ice-sheet modeler Frank Pattyn of the Free University of Brussels. The only scientists to pay a visit so far this year are two from WSL, the Swiss institute, and two private grantees who traveled to the station last weekend with Amin.

At the station, IPF staffers are keeping some experiments going, Amin says. Van Lipzig says her cloud observatory is not among them because it would be very difficult for nonspecialists to operate. She adds that the standoff puts her in a difficult position with foreign colleagues: “You spend a year planning projects, and then you have to tell them it won’t happen.”

Meanwhile, the government has refused to give Hubert the codes to the base’s satellite phone system, which has reduced communication to a minimum. There was no internet at the station over the past month, says WSL’s Michael Lehning, who just returned to Switzerland. In December 2016, the government claimed IPF was offering tourist visits to the station as part of a pricey trip organized by a South African firm. IPF denies the allegation.

Researchers hope a thaw will soon set in. “We need long-term stability,” Van Lipzig says. The government is mulling how to proceed. Although Hubert’s accomplishments are undisputed, says the state secretary’s spokesperson, “You’re dealing with tax-payers’ money. If you can’t keep your books in order, you shouldn’t be running a polar station.” Amin denies that IPF is to blame for the fiasco and says the government’s audits were biased against the foundation.

IPF, she says, is waiting for the government to offer an equitable proposal on station management. “This has been our work for the last 14 years,” Amin says. “There’s no way on Earth that we’re going to walk away from it.”

Source: Science Mag