The National Science Foundation (NSF) is spending tens of millions on its Antarctic "Artists and Writers" program, which includes taxpayer-funded trips for poets to visit the Southern Hemisphere.
The NSF has sent nearly 100 poets, writers, painters, and musicians to Antarctica over the past three decades, providing round trip economy air tickets from the United States as well as "in-kind" support such as food, shelter, and cold-weather clothing, which is returned by the artist at the completion of their trip.
Peter West, Outreach and Education Program Manager who oversees the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, told the Washington Free Beacon that artists are flown to New Zealand and then to different parts of the Antarctic.
West said the program is a "very tiny fraction" of the $1.9 billion NSF operation in the Antarctic, which is currently being contracted out to Lockheed Martin.
While he did not have an up-to-date estimate of the cost to send writers to the region, West said program costs could be estimated by searching average flights to New Zealand. The artists fly to New Zealand, and are then taken to different stations in Antarctica via military aircraft.
The NSF has financed 126 trips as of May 2013. Those trips, which have taken place for decades, have cost roughly $302,400, taking round trip airfare from Washington, D.C. to New Zealand, which typically costs $2,400 per person.
"The program’s been running for 30 years, there’s a very, very long list of people who have participated, including an Oscar-nominated film director," West said. "Part of the reason, the rationale for the Artists and Writers program is that we at the National Science Foundation have a presidential mandate to operate a program in Antarctica, and we’re responsible for having an active presence [there]."
"They tell us what they want to do and their proposals have to align with the science we support," he said.
"The purpose of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program is to enable serious writings and works of art that exemplify the Antarctic heritage of humankind," a synopsis for the program states.
Artists who have recently received taxpayer-funded trips include Meredith Hooper, who has gone on three trips and spent a summer writing a "firsthand account of the effects of climate change on Antarctica." Kathleen Keeley also traveled to the region to work on her fourth young adult novel about a preteen "merperson" named Molly.
Michael Bartalos, a graphic artist from San Francisco, went in 2008 for his project, "The Art of Recycling in Antarctica: The Long View." Bartalos created a "sculptural book" about the U.S. Antarctic Program’s recycling efforts, using discarded materials he collected while there.
Bartalos said he was searching for "exquisite discards" that did not resemble "contemporary U.S. waste."
The NSF paid for Lucy Jane Bledsoe, who is currently selling a novel about "two doting dads" raising a child, to go to Antarctica in 1999 and 2003. Bledsoe is currently promoting a novel about the continent entitled, "The Big Bang Symphony," whose trailer tells the tale of three "complex women," a geologist, a cook, and a composer who are pushed to the "edge of [their] own emotional territory."
"One continent. Three women. Ice. Rocks. Sky. Antarctica. The continent that delivers devastation, or transcendence," reads the book’s trailer’s tagline.
Judith Nutter, whose poetry is described as "re-visioning the women/nature connection … to create a female world view that speaks for and includes women," received a grant in 2004.
Kathleen Heideman, also a poet, traveled in 2005. She is currently working on a collection entitled "Departments of the Interior." One poem, "Why I Want to Be a Park Ranger When I Grow Up," features the lines: "We never ran into Park Rangers eating cheeseburgers at Burger King; Or thumbing leaves of grass on a Naugahyde sofa under plastic ferns in a Best Western lobby."
Most recently, Jynne Dilling Martin received a trip in December 2013. Her poem, "Am Going South, Amundsen," was published in Slate, and describes a jaguar "eating an emperor penguin." One stanza ends: "Will this species be here tomorrow or not?"
Artists must convince the NSF that it is "necessary, not simply desirable" to travel to Antarctica for their project.
In addition to supporting poets and musicians trips to the region, the Artists and Writers program currently has $31.5 million in active grants, including $2.2 million to send 48 primary school teachers from Alaska to the Polar Regions," and $5.6 million to Columbia University to create "voicemails from the future" to warn against climate change.
Many of the grants involve climate change education, including $1.2 million for "Fostering Climate Science Literacy and Promoting Minority Participation in the Geosciences," and $2.1 million to confront the "challenges of climate literacy" in high school students in Massachusetts.
The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor received $3.4 million to teach middle and high school students "complex thinking" about global warming, since "it is likely that our planet will undergo more anthropogenic change than it has during all of human history to date" during their lifetimes, according to the grant.