Sunday, August 14, 2011

Water tracks on Mars?

Last season in Antarctica, we focused on trying to understand "water tracks"--small meltwater channels that percolate downslope through Antarctic permafrost (frozen soil). The idea is that snow and ground ice melt in the summer, and the water flows downhill under the pull of gravity. Because there's not a lot of water, it just oozes through the soil, rather than flowing atop the soil as a stream. As a result, water tracks show up as lines of wet soil snaking down valley walls in the Antarctic landscape.

Now it seems that water tracks may have been discovered on Mars by Alfred McEwen and the HiRISE camera team. For full coverage see BBC and Science.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

It's Official! Back to Garwood Valley

Exciting news! I've just received word that the National Science Foundation has approved my proposal to continue work in Garwood Valley!

We've been authorized to spend three years and three field seasons exploring the buried ice that we reconnoitered this past winter, in order to learn about the climate during the transition out of the last ice age. The official NSF site about the award can be found here.

Some folks might wonder how it is that scientists fund the research that they do (in Antarctica and elsewhere). Many scientists are supported part of the year by the university at which they work (the scientist's salary is paid for teaching classes, advising students, serving on university committees, etc). For the rest of the year, and if they want to do research with expensive equipment or in far away places, require that the scientists secure grants from state, local, and federal government agencies, or from private companies or foundations.

Most federal agencies (like the US National Science Foundation) get an annual budget from the US Congress. Some of that budget is dedicated to research programs (for example, the Antarctic Earth Sciences research program, which funds my work). Scientists send research proposals to the funding agencies ("Hey, look at me! I've got a great hypothesis that needs testing!"). Usually the scientists work in teams to tackle bigger problems than an individual could solve on his or her own.

The program manager at the funding agency then assembles a team of scientists to evaluate the proposals. This process is called peer review. The review panel reads through the proposals to determine where the strengths and weaknesses are for each proposal. This process is very helpful--not all the proposals will be funded every year,but  every proposal gets feedback. When else does a scientist have a room full of experts providing feedback on their best ideas?

The review panel doesn't just pick favorites, of course! Every proposal is evaluated based on criteria that are established by the funding agency. The NSF, for example, evaluates proposals based on the intellectual merit of the proposal ("Is this good science, that solves an important technical problem, or that tests a major hypothesis?") as well as the broader impacts of the proposal ("What societal good will come from this work? Will students be trained? Will the general public learn about the research through an outreach program?").

Once the proposals have been evaluated by scientists, the program manager (usually a scientist, too!) makes a set of recommendations to the funding agency, and then the administrator of the funding agency approves or rejects the proposals. The proposals all have a budget attached to them ("How much will it cost to answer this question?"), which is then paid for with a grant from the funding agency.

I count myself very lucky to have a chance to go back to Garwood Valley to do science as the head of an NSF funded project. Only about one in four proposals are funded on average, and that ratio has been falling in recent years. It's very unusual for a new researcher like me to be named the principle investigator of a big project like this. It's all exceptionally exciting!

Stay tuned for updates as I assemble the field team and prepare to return to Antarctica!