British Antarctic Survey saved as merger plan is scuppered


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The Independent Online

Controversial plans to merge two of Britain’s most distinguished scientific institutions may be abandoned following a public outcry. Government proposals to merge the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), look set to be scrapped this week The Independent on Sunday has learned. The cost-cutting measure was strongly criticised by top British and international scientists and was first revealed in this newspaper in April this year.

Former US vice-President Al Gore also cautioned against the move describing BAS as “a globally significant organisation”. Critics claim the merger move would undermine its scientific work and compromise the UK’s strategic presence in the region. But the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc), which funds the organisations, says the merger is necessary due to a decrease in funding.

The BAS, since 1962, has been the UK’s operation in Antarctica and its scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer in the mid-1980s. This December, they will drill through 3km of solid ice at Lake Ellsworth to extract clues to past climate. However, the BAS has a special ‘dual role’ and provides the UK with a presence in the Southern Ocean, including the Falkland Islands at a time when diplomatic relations have often been strained between Argentina and Britain.

The plans were met with derision, first among scientists in the national and international science community, including one of Britain’s most distinguished scientist’s Sir Martin Holdgate. Members of the public also signed a petition which has so far garnered over 3,000 signatories.

Critics said that no business case was offered by Nerc and that two ‘world-class’ brand names would be in danger of being dropped at a time when vital work in polar science is needed to further our understanding of environmental changes. 

Now The IoS understands from key sources within government and polar science that, though a final decision is still to be made on Thursday, the plans are likely to be dropped.
Nerc last month laid out its plans in a consultation document with the proposal to create a single centre for marine and polar science, likely to be based in Southampton.

Responses to the consultation were overwhelmingly critical of the plan with only three responses out of more than 360 replies in favour.
Last Wednesday, Nerc suddenly advanced a meeting at which the final decision was to be made by over a month. It will now meet on Thursday.

One result of Nerc’s sudden fast forward was that members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee who were eager to question Ministers and officials about the proposals before a final decision was made were forced to advance their own inquiry.

Andrew Miller MP, committee chair, summonsed Professor Duncan Wingham, Nerc Chief Executive, to appear before the committee next Wednesday to ensure Nerc’s decision can be scrutinized before the final decision is taken.

Mr Miller said: “The issues raised by the proposed merger of the British Antarctic Survey and National Oceanography Centre warrant a public hearing.  I am concerned that the Science and Technology Committee should have the opportunity to scrutinise these proposals before a final decision is taken.  I have therefore requested that the Chief Executive of Nerc comes to give evidence to the Committee at an evidence session next week.” Science Minister David Willetts, will also face questions from the Committee.

The IoS also understands six senior scientists at BAS have been asked by Nerc to put together an alternative to the merger. Some scientists have also separately suggested, that BAS because of it’s dual role, should be taken away from Nerc altogether and governed by a special committee involving officials from the Foreign Office, the Military of Defence, the Treasury and the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.

Professor Klaus Dodds, a Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and an expert in the Antarctic region, said not enough attention is being paid to the role BAS plays in being a presence in the southern oceans. “You shouldn’t pretend that particularly Argentine hostility isn’t a factor. Anglo/Argentine relations are at their worst state since 1982. If you fiddle with BAS you then have implications for other UK interests in the Falklands and South Georgia. The whole Nerc consultation document was very frustrating because there was not sufficient acknowledgement that it’s not just a question of logistics and rationalisation. The Chileans and Argentinian’s will be watching the situation very carefully and will think we’re losing interest in the region.”

Nerc said last night: “Council will be considering the case on the basis of its scientific benefits to UK marine and polar research excellence,” and that it was working on alternative options from the merger.