Scott Gerald Borg has helped turn the U.S. Antarctic science program into the largest and most prestigious research effort on the continent, exploring climate change and the origins and nature of the universe and making discoveries that have ranged from finding two new species of dinosaurs to uncovering threats to penguin survival.
As the head of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Antarctic Sciences Section, Borg coordinates the direction of and funding for the program’s entire portfolio, which includes tens of millions of dollars in awards each year to researchers at institutions throughout the country who are involved in cutting-edge science.
“Scott’s sustained commitment, forward-thinking leadership and strong vision in the face of numerous obstacles have both invigorated and ensured world preeminence of the U.S. Antarctic science program for over two decades,” said Kelly Falkner, director of NSF’s polar programs division.
Noteworthy scientific achievements fostered under Borg’s stewardship include the development of a clean drilling technology to retrieve the first-ever pure water samples from an Antarctic lake a half mile below the surface of the ice sheet. These samples, which likely have been sealed beneath thousands of feet of ice for up to 15 million years, are helping researchers understand what kinds of life might survive in other worlds.
In addition, scientists working with the NSF recently completed the West Antarctic Ice Sheet drilling project, which required Borg’s leadership to overcome the numerous technical and logistical challenges extract an ice core from a critical location in Antarctica. According to Falkner, this ice core dates back 68,000 years and embodies the highest-resolution record of climate ever recovered. Once analyses are completed, scientists will have a clearer understanding of the timing of major climate changes on the planet and their causes.
Borg also has overseen NSF’s support for scientific research leading to the recent confirmation of ultra-rapid expansion of the universe, called cosmic inflation that occurred a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. He also has overseen findings on key risks to the survival of penguins, including rising global temperatures and melting sea ice; the discoveries a new species of small sea anemones; and the fossilized remains of two species of dinosaurs previously unknown to science.
“There is breakthrough work coming out of our Antarctic research, and it is pivotal to the principal advances made in science,” said NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett. “Knowledge of what is possible is expanded because of research that is done in Antarctica. It is a novel and important site.”
Antarctica is the most untouched region on the planet, making it one of the world’s most important places to perform scientific research in areas such as astronomy, atmospheric sciences, biology, earth science, environmental science, geology, glaciology, marine biology, oceanography and geophysics.
Because it is a continent of extremes, Antarctica is one of the most challenging yet potentially fruitful environments to conduct research in, and as a result, Borg is constantly looking for opportunities to support and empower the best minds and ideas there.
“If you limit yourself to what is convenient or easy to do, you cut out a whole class of activity and universe of discovery that is not possible if you are not willing to stretch,” said Borg.
A recent example of Borg’s unfailing commitment to facilitate discovery is the IceCube project, which placed a gigantic detector nearly a mile below the surface at the South Pole Station to search for elusive subatomic particles called neutrinos. The purpose of IceCube is to learn more about the most violent events in the universe, such as explosion of supermassive stars, known as supernovae, and potentially learn about dark matter.
Borg not only facilitated this challenging $270 million project with six U.S. institutions and five foreign partners on time and within budget, but he led the NSF team that brokered a precedent setting international agreement for open and timely data sharing. Under Borg’s leadership, NSF has fostered expansion of the IceCube collaboration to include 41 institutions in 12 countries, enhancing the pace of discovery and providing the scientific community insights into the past and the development of the universe.
Marrett said Borg is central to the success of the Antarctic program.
“He is a jewel for the foundation and a model for others to see what can be done through federal service,” said Marrett. “There is breakthrough work coming out of our Antarctic research, and it is pivotal to the principal advances made in science.”
Falkner credits Borg with making the tough decisions needed to prevent the program from remaining static, while also giving scientists space to be innovative.
“Science is a constantly shifting horizon, and Scott is masterful at keeping the program at the forefront of science. He takes risks, puts his neck out and tries things that have not been done before. It’s the program’s blessing that he has been at the forefront and willing to take risks,” said Falkner.