People drink in Antarctica (oh, and everywhere else)

I was sent two versions of this article today that claims, in a dramatic way, that scientists are drinking way too much in Antarctica. The Wired link is below and the other one which was sent to me was on the popular "I f****** love science" Facebook page.

I have spent 3 field seasons at the smallest American research base in Antarctica, called Palmer Station, and I did notice people drinking on Friday and Saturday nights. The article specifically talks about McMurdo and South Pole station, where there are more people. Even though we at Palmer Station had an open bar 24/7, it was empty most of the time. With a maximum 45 people on station in summer, everyone is busy doing science. But even I, who averages at a whopping 1 alcoholic beverage a week, would sometimes consume 2-3 on a wild Saturday night. With good food and great company, who can resist? I also go this crazy at the occasional night club in Denver and at wine and cheese parties.

But back to the article, which brings up several points, some unrelated to the title and drinking, and those I do have issues with. 

FIRST: This is a silly article. Of course people drink down South, AND guess what? They drink here, too. In fact I've seen many a scientist over-drink at conferences just like I see people over-drinking at weddings or in finance when out with colleagues. The "work hard, play hard" motto applies in many situations. Frankly I don't really understand this article since most people I've known in Antarctica drink outside of work hours if they do drink.

SECOND: In some ways this article implies that Antarctica drives people to drink due to harsh climate and remote-ness, when in fact I think that is not the case - the majority of people I met had self control and were serious about work. It may be that certain types of people are drawn to work in Antarctica, which is a remote place and we all know that before we get there. I don't think it's the remoteness that suddenly drives people to the bottle. It's really a beautiful continent and the peace and quiet there is welcome!

THIRD: The article mentions a separation between the scientists (or "beakers") and the contract workers. Maybe there is but it's pretty natural for this to happen in any work place. The logistics/contract workers are employees of the contractor (Raytheon or Lockheed Martin) in charge of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). They provide all logistical support for the scientists who are funded to do research by grants from the NSF. Palmer Station is more like a family and everyone eats together (I ate with the divers and sub-contractors every evening). But at McMurdo and South Pole there is more of a business-like feel. Let me ask you, would YOU want to eat three meals a day with people who were telling you what to do and how to do it all year long? I know I wouldn't if I was a contract worker. Scientists absolutely NEED the support of contract workers in order to collect samples or set up technical equipment or access remote field sites, but they often need things done their way in order for an experiment to work properly and have the right controls. The divide may exist because scientists are notorious for "talking shop" endlessly from my experience, and contract support workers may feel like they're being "bossed around" or not getting a break from work in their off-time. Technically the whole endeavor is a collaboration between scientists and contractors. But scientists have a limited amount of time to get their science done during a field season and so they tend to be working all the time, thinking their science is the priority. This is likely a huge turn-off for most contract workers who work there year-round with different groups of scientists every few months.

FOURTH: The article states that scientists are disciplined less than contract workers, in this case where the scientist was found brewing beer on station. The article also assumes that disciplinary action can be taken against scientists by the USAP. Two such actions include: sending a scientist home and/or never again awarding them an NSF grant. While this may not seem like a big deal to most people, both of these are severe blows to a scientist and their career and could destroy their life's work, it's like being fired from a project forever. However, because scientists are only funded by NSF and supported by USAP, and are not actually employees of Lockheed Martin (contractor)/USAP, they cannot really be "fired" or disciplined by these entities. It would fall upon the individual scientist's university to take any further disciplinary action, and I don't foresee any tenured professors getting fired for something like making beer. On the other hand, as employees of the USAP and a particular contractor, the contract workers have signed an agreement outlining terms of employment. Thus, any breach of contract is more directly disciplined and more officially recorded. This is also too bad for the employee in question. 

Mostly I wanted to comment on this article because to me it seems a sensationalist headline trying to make it seem like no work gets done in Antarctica due to drinking, and the government needs to intervene. In fact great science happens there everyday by both scientists and logistics people and the collaborative, interdisciplinary, and international environment. It's true that disciplinary action is often left to the judgement of supervisors and station managers, but these are often very capable and good people who know when to give people space in a restricted environment, and when to take action.

If the government wants to crack down on something maybe they should focus on bigger issues like gun control and increasing Gross National Happiness of the American public.

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