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July 26, 1999

Research on arctic expeditions suggests private sector may bebetter suited than government for exploring space

Ninety years ago this month, the S.S. Roosevelt broke free of its iced-in harbor in northern Canada to carry news of Robert Peary’s claim to have discovered the North Pole, ending nearly a century of exploration by dreamers and schemers from around the world. Newspaper accounts hailed Peary’s achievement and patriotic fervor spread across the United States. Peary became a household name and the subject of children’s history books.

This is in stark contrast to news events that captivated the world just 25 years earlier. On July 18, 1884, Americans learned of the rescue of six survivors from the ill-fated Greely expedition. Adolphus Greely, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, led an assault that successfully reached farther north than any previous expedition. While retreating from his outpost high in the Canadian archipelago, however, Greely ran out of food. Nineteen of his men starved to death, and the six emaciated survivors, including Greely himself, were rescued in the nick of time. Subsequent news reports of heroism, grisly deaths and cannibalism kept the country riveted on the Greely saga for weeks to come.

Until recently, most historians have attributed the disparate outcomes of the Peary and Greely expeditions to the skills and luck of the individuals involved. A new study by University of Washington professor Jonathan Karpoff, however, suggests that these outcomes were not mere accidents. Rather, they reflect systematic differences in the ways that the expeditions were organized and may offer insight into how best to proceed with exploration of modern frontiers such as space.

“A lot of the history of the arctic is well-known, but these findings represent a new slant,” says Karpoff, the Metcalfe Professor of Finance at the UW’s School of Business Administration. “Since 19th century polar expeditions were initiated and funded by both national governments and private organizations, they offer an alternative way to investigate the relative efficiencies of public and private enterprise. My research indicates that the private sector was better suited than government for conducting arctic exploration. This might also be true for today’s equivalent, the exploration of space.”

Karpoff examined 91 arctic expeditions during the “heroic age” of 1818-1909. He looked at the expeditions’ objectives, countries of origin, leaders’ experience, funding and modes of travel. The most important determinant of an expedition’s success, he concluded, was whether the expedition was funded by public or private dollars. Private expeditions, such as Peary’s, achieved most of the noteworthy arctic successes. Publicly funded expeditions, such as Greely’s, suffered a disproportionate share of the tragedies.

According to Karpoff’s analysis, an average of 5.9 crew members died on the 35 public expeditions, compared with an average of 0.9 deaths on the 56 private expeditions. Among ship-based expeditions, more than one of every two public outfits lost a ship while fewer than one in four private outfits lost a ship. On expeditions lasting more than a year, 47 percent of the public ventures’ were afflicted by debilitating scurvy, compared with 13 percent of the private ventures. Private expeditions also made a disproportionately high number of significant arctic discoveries, and did so using considerably fewer resources than public expeditions.

Karpoff attributes the disparate outcomes of public and private arctic expeditions to systemic differences in how they were organized and executed. Historical accounts indicate, for example, that, compared with private ventures, public expeditions employed leaders who were relatively unmotivated and unprepared for arctic exploration.

“It comes through very clearly in the diaries that public expeditions frequently had leaders with far less passion for high latitudes than leaders of the private expeditions,” Karpoff says. “The private leaders would write in flowing prose about the beauty of light shining through the ice and the music of the pack ice grinding together, while the public leaders, who usually were appointed to their posts, wrote about the desolate emptiness of the arctic wasteland. This probably affected the way they prepared for and led their expeditions.”

A second reason for the private ventures’ improved outcomes is that, unlike their public counterparts, they generally unified the planning and execution functions of leadership. Greely’s expedition, for example, was conceived and laid out entirely by superiors and then given to him to execute. The ultimate demise of 80 percent of his crew is a result of his following orders to abandon his camp at an appointed time. The lesson here, Karpoff says, is that people who suffer the consequences of bad decisions are more likely to make good decisions if given the opportunity.

A final difference between public and private expeditions identified by Karpoff is that governments adapted slowly to new information and technology for living and traveling in the arctic. By 1875, for example, decades of arctic exploration had amply documented the advantages of traveling by dogsled and snowshoes in the arctic. Nevertheless, a British naval expedition led that year by George Nares ignored such evidence in favor of military regulations and foundered miserably in the field.

Karpoff believes this analysis sheds light on appropriate roles for public and private enterprise. Given the strong similarities between polar exploration in the 19th century and space exploration in the latter half of this century, Karpoff’s research indicates that the private sector may be better suited than government for space exploration. He suggests offering a large cash award for defined space objectives and letting free enterprise take over.

“It’s hard not to see microeconomics at work through the incentives, preparations, organizational structures and outcomes of these arctic expeditions, and the same principles apply to space exploration,” Karpoff says. “Government is great for a lot of things, but probably not for organizing the incentives and flexible working groups that are required for success in new, dynamic, and demanding environments.”


For more information, contact Karpoff at (206) 685-4954 or