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Donal Manahan Testifies on Capitol Hill

Renowned USC polar scientist calls for more research and education to coincide with first International Polar Year in a half century.

Donal Manahan Testifies on Capitol Hill
Everything cold will be a hot topic next March when the International Polar Year (IPY) begins, Donal Manahan of USC College told a committee of U.S. House representatives.

Manahan, an Antarctic biologist with more than two decades’ experience, stressed the importance of polar research and education in his Sept. 20 testimony to the Subcommittee on Research of the House Committee on Science.

“Concepts such as ‘abrupt climate change’ and ‘surprises’ regarding our environment are now in common use. There is no doubt in my mind that further research in polar regions is absolutely essential for understanding our planet,” Manahan said in prepared remarks.

The upcoming IPY is only the fourth in the 125-year history of the program and the first since 1957-58. While each program strove to advance earth science through a concentrated effort, the coming IPY is unique, Manahan stated.

“The next IPY will differ from previous ones in enhancing our understanding of polar regions through novel, cross-disciplinary research,” he said. “During the International Geophysical Year in the 1950s, the focus was more on the physical sciences. Research during [this] IPY will certainly span from the scale of individual molecules and genes to the larger scale of whole oceans and continents.”

For example, Manahan said, “as physical scientists provide a better understanding and predictability of temperature change, biologists will be better able to undertake more realistic experiments to define biological responses of organisms to such changes.”

The applications extend far beyond the poles. The “Cold Biosphere,” with a temperature less than a home refrigerator’s, makes up approximately 90 percent of Earth’s habitats, Manahan told committee members.

Manahan stressed the importance of educational and research efforts for the committee members, who can influence the amount and direction of federal funding for the sciences.

“We need to develop innovative educational and training programs designed to bring young scientists at the Ph.D. level to polar regions,” he said. “This next generation of potential leaders in polar science will be provided with intense training programs during which they will be exposed to the unique research opportunities in Antarctica.”

Committee members praised Manahan enthusiastically before an audience that included co-panelist Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation.

Subcommittee Chairman Bob Inglis said, “This is a master teacher. He had us all in rapt attention.”

Manahan concluded with comments from recent experience: “In my more than 20 years of working in Antarctica, I have never before personally experienced such a widespread and intense interest by the general public in research in polar regions. I receive numerous requests to speak about polar science at career days of elementary, middle and high schools; to address communities of retired citizens; and to present at natural history and community science museums…. The timing is now most appropriate to launch a new IPY.”

During his 23 years at USC, Manahan has served as department chair for biological sciences and as dean of research for the College. His recent honors include the naming in 2000 of Manahan Peak, a 6,000-foot mountain in Antarctica, and his lifetime appointment in 2001 as national associate of the United States’ National Academies in recognition of “extraordinary service to the National Academies in their role as advisors to the nation.”