A spot on the USAP’s Artists & Writers crew is, in effect, an NSF grant. One is not paid for one’s time there, but it is no insignificant expense on the part of the National Science Foundation to house one, feed one, and move one around a continent of ice. Therefore, the application process is just as rigorous as if I were an astrophysicist going down to study cosmic rays, and the paperwork and procedures were identical.
The primary thrust of the application was to convince the NSF that I was For Real, that my project was going to reach a large number of people, and that it was relevant to the work being done in Antarctica now.
Points 1 and 2 were easy enough; my years at Disney and classical drawing portfolio were sufficient to qualify me as a legitimate professional artist, if not high culture. I was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of the fanart phenomenon, so I’ve got a comparatively large and loyal following online. But how to communicate the relevance of a bunch of Brits* a hundred** years ago to the US Antarctic Program’s current endeavours?
Well, quite simply, they were doing the same science in the same places, and laying the foundation for all the work that would come after them, whichever country was doing it. The main American base, McMurdo Station, is a stone’s throw from where Scott’s first expedition put down roots. The expedition I’m interested in – Scott’s second – was based fifteen miles north of there, but the environment was much the same, and by Antarctic standards that’s just next door. They weren’t Americans, but they were humans, doing the same meteorology, magnetology, physics, marine biology, glaciology, geology, zoology, and any number of other -ologies on the same species, ice, weather, sea currents, rocks etc. as the humans there now. It is one continuum of science which spans nearly the entire period of human activity in the Antarctic.
My main point, though – one which I made when my obsession was young, and one I will continue to make while there is breath left in me – is that the best way to make people care about something is to tell them an emotionally engaging story about it. I like science; I watched a lot of nature documentaries as a child; even so, I had only an abstract appreciation of Antarctica as a piece of relatively pristine nature which, of course, we should preserve. Since getting emotionally attached to the Terra Nova Expedition, I will defend the Antarctic Treaty to the death. If only a small proportion of my readers are affected the same way, who knows how that might nudge future Antarctic policy? Perhaps even more importantly, readers might develop an emotional interest in a branch of science via the entertaining and lovable character doing that science as part of the story. How many people went into archaeology because of Indiana Jones, or crime scene forensics because of CSI? Glacial flow rates and frazil ice are a lot more interesting when you can associate them with a wisecracking Canadian with an unprintable vocabulary.
As the application process is the same for both artists and scientists, there were a lot of forms that needed filling out which bore little or no relevance to my projected work – I didn’t need to list possible radioactive or biohazard materials I’d be working with, or arrange cargo delivery by ship, or request access to specialist equipment. The budget sheet was refreshingly simple to complete as it consisted entirely of zeroes. But every form needed filling, and then submitting through quite a complicated website, and sometimes reformatting when the PDF scanner thought it had too many headings, or when it turned out the budget sheet needed a 1 somewhere in order not to confuse the computers.
Despite the heavy childhood consumption of PBS, I grew up in an environment which was highly skeptical of government science grants. The general assumption was that publicly funded scientists were living high on taxpayer dollars, and would make up spurious studies to further their cushy careers. Having now done, once, what scientists have to do all the time just to stay employed, I cordially welcome all skeptics to try it for themselves, and try to imagine living on the amounts generally awarded, which have to cover equipment and lab costs as well as living expenses. As a nerdy child, science was held up to me as a secure and profitable career choice vs. starving in a garret; in retrospect, the arts has given me a better life and a happier savings account than most scientists I know.
Writing the application, which included making a few new illustrations to communicate what the finished project would look like, took most of May 2018. The deadline was June 1st. I set aside the last week for the submission process alone, which was just as well as the day before the deadline it looked like I’d have to be registered as an independent vendor to the US government, a process which could take at least two weeks. Then it turned out I was using the wrong website to submit. I got the paperwork in just as the gates were closing, and thus began the long wait to find out if my efforts would pay off.
* Plus one Canadian, one Norwegian, two Australians, and two Russians
** 109 years now, but who’s counting