Polar Foundation paints itself into corner

-          State proposes deal to Polar Foundation

-          Sets down drastic terms for management of Antarctic research station

The International Polar Foundation (IPF) appears to have now been left with two choices: accept the terms of the agreement put on the table by the federal government on Friday, or begin a legal battle that is in nobody’s interests, especially not its own. The goal of the deal put forward by the government, spearheaded by Philippe Courard, secretary of state in charge of federal science policy, is to bring a halt to hostilities between the state and the Foundation (see Le Soir of July 11th). The former reproaches the latter of a lack of transparency in the way Princess Elisabeth’s scientific polar research station on Antarctica is run. The IPF, meanwhile, accuses the government of reneging on its commitments, especially the financial ones.

The dispute escalated at the end of April when the Foundation sent a letter to the government listing its complaints and concluding that it considered that it now owned the station outright. It was at this point that the tensions which had been brewing for some time erupted into all-out war.

Will the proposed agreement defuse the situation and settle the argument once and for all? “They need to grasp this extended hand,” said Courard. Friday Thierry Touchais, executive director of the Foundation, appeared delighted that a solution would enable the “standoff to come an end, to launch the 2013-14 campaign and to consider the future of the station.” As far as everything else is concerned, there was no comment, as he has not yet seen the proposal. Has the IPF got its back to the wall? “I couldn’t tell you,” said Touchais. “Philippe Courard talks of extended hands, but I don’t know what the hand contains.” The IPF board is due to meet this weekend.

The state has therefore agreed to hand over the funds due to the IPF. It claims it is ready to release 65 % of the amount needed for the next Antarctic campaign, but there is a veritable wave of conditions attached: prior budget approval by the Belgian Polar Secretariat, adherence to the budget, expenses justification, and recourse to the public procurement procedure (which the Foundation contested). “When an invoice arrives, it needs to be justified,” said Courard. “The state is not just a body that receives invoices and then pays them. I would like all of the invoices for which I am responsible to be verified by the Finance Inspector’s office. Now and in the future.”

In addition the state and the Foundation will begin negotiations relating to the overhaul of the station’s management structure by March 2014. The objective?  To make it “less costly – and even self-reliant,” said Courard. Partners (France, Switzerland, Luxembourg etc.) will be invited in.

Outstanding issues will still need to be resolved. One of these is explorer Alain Hubert’s presidency over the strategic boards of both the Polar Secretariat and the Polar Foundation. This presents a possible problem since the former finances the latter. Another is the use of companies run by Hubert and his wife, as well as the transparency of the IPF’s accounts and spending control. The hatchet has not been buried just yet.

MICHEL DE MUELENAERE

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