IoS exclusive:

Exclusive: British polar research in crisis

The scientific body whose groundbreaking discoveries include the hole in the ozone layer is facing massive cuts as the Government's austerity measures reach new frontiers

The British scientific research body which discovered the hole in the ozone layer and whose work is now vital to understanding climate change is fighting for its life. Cuts of more than 25 per cent to the budget of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have been proposed, and threaten not only its continuing work but also have already caused one major casualty, a furious interdepartmental row in Whitehall and prompted the intervention of the Prime Minister.

MPs intend raising in the Commons concerns about what is considered to be a jewel in the crown of British science, and it is understood that Foreign Office officials intend to contest the funding cuts to the bitter end. All this is in the centenary year of the death of Scott of the Antarctic, and in the wake of the worldwide success of Sir David Attenborough's BBC1 Frozen Planet series.

At stake is one of the most respected groups of scientists in the world. It was three scientists at the British Antarctic Survey who discovered the "ozone hole", writing one of the most influential papers ever published in journal Nature, which went on to shape the way we think about climate change. More recently, BAS has undertaken major work to monitor global sea-level rises.

But all that is now in jeopardy, after the cost-cutting measures ordered by the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) which provides the main source of BAS funding. The NERC in turn receives the cash from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is under serious pressure to reduce the UK's national deficit. The Independent on Sunday understands NERC was seeking a £13m cut from an overall budget of £48m.

The BAS director, Professor Nicholas Owens, and NERC chief executive, Professor Duncan Wingham, are reported to have clashed sharply over the issue. The argument came to a climax in December when Professor Owens went over the head of NERC and made the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) aware of the proposed changes he felt were being forced through. FCO officials are so concerned at the proposals to scale down BAS's work it raised the issue at a National Security Council meeting in January, prompting the intervention of Prime Minister David Cameron. As part of its dual role, it also provides presence in the region for the FCO, where its science work informs government policy. However the FCO does not provide funding for BAS.

Mr Cameron pledged support for the work of BAS, and ordered the funding row be resolved, but since then the crisis has worsened after the alleged suspension of Professor Owens. Initially, Professor Owens, a highly respected scientist, was said to be on sick leave, but this description has now been changed to "special leave". After the NSC meeting, relations between Professor Owens and NERC deteriorated further. It is understood that negotiations between Professor Owens are NERC are still ongoing.

NERC drafted in Professor Ed Hill from the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton as interim BAS director. Staff were surprised that the current deputy director of BAS was not given the role, as would often be the case in this situation. The handling of the crisis has alarmed eminent scientists, MPs and those involved in polar research. Professor Sir John Lawton, an ecologist and former head of NERC, said: "I would be extremely disappointed that a major jewel in the scientific crown would be irreparably damaged."

A number of the BAS staff, which is based in Cambridgeshire, have raised their concerns with Dr Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge. Dr Huppert said yesterday that he was disturbed by what he was told and planned to ask questions in Parliament when it reconvenes later this month. He said: "BAS is an incredible asset for the country. It does phenomenal work on all sorts of science, from environmental concerns to fundamental interest in biology. It is a fantastic asset to us and I'd be very sorry to see anything happen which weakens that. I think it would be particularly disappointing in this year when we're all remembering Captain Scott of the Antarctic and his endeavours. I think it would be a great shame to see a weakening of our polar efforts."

Andrew Rosindell, chair of the all-party Polar Regions Parliamentary Group, said he was also concerned at the threat to BAS. "Expenditure that can be cut short term without drastically affecting things, should be done. But if it's to have a long-term detrimental effect, then the Government should think twice."

BAS was first established during the Second World War as part of a wartime expedition known as Operation Tabarin. Its aim then was to deter enemy ships and to strengthen Britain's claim to the Falkland Islands – an area of operation which has not diminished over the decades. The base then provided an opportunity to undertake scientific research.

Later this month, a report in the journal Polar Research will reveal that Britain's role in producing Antarctic science is unparalleled. The report, co-authored by scientists Dr John Dudeney and Professor David Walton, shows that, over the last 18 years, the UK has produced the most science papers and generally has the greatest political influence over the region than any of the 49 Antarctic Treaty nations.

It is believed that one of the keys to the success of BAS is the broad range of science outputs which come together under one roof, encompassing geology, climate change, marine science, biodiversity as well as monitoring natural hazards such as sea-level rises. However, the logistical costs of supporting the work is said to be high, involving a number of aircraft and ships. It is understood that senior figures at NERC believe work can be done more cheaply by departments in British universities. This argument has been widely contested by BAS.

Staff morale is said to be very low at the institute's headquarters after the removal of Professor Owens. One source said morale is "probably as low as it's been in the last 25 years", and this was "the most difficult period the organisation has seen in that time".

The Universities and Science Minister David Willetts, who visited the Antarctic base last month said that the Government was "fully committed to keeping operations going" in the region and that NERC was simply looking for ways to improve how the research base functions. He did not rule out the idea that it could be divided, with research done by universities.

The NERC said in a statement yesterday: "NERC values all the organisations it funds, and regards the work of the British Antarctic Survey as essential to delivering a part of NERC's scientific objectives. NERC does face challenges in continuing to deliver excellent science at a time when funding is under pressure. All parts of NERC are having to manage reductions in funding in real terms and to look hard at how they operate. BAS activities are high cost, in that they depend on significant logistical activity and are vulnerable to changes in the price of oil."

A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said: "Like all public sector bodies, NERC needs to make efficiencies in order to play its part in cutting the deficit." He insisted ministers were not responsible for management decisions of BAS, which is undertaken by NERC.

Additional reporting by Jack Dean

Natural history: Centuries of discovery

1770 Since Captain Cook first sailed around the Antarctic over 200 years ago, Britain has been a scientific leader in the region.

1900s But the most famous British expeditions to the Antarctic took place during the so-called "heroic age" at the start of the 20th century with Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1909 marching as far south as any person had ever gone. In 1912, Captain Scott made his ill-fated voyage to the South Pole.

1920s Britain's scientific interest in the Antarctic continued when, with funds from the whaling industry the Falkland Islands dependencies government supported 13 Discovery voyages.

1945 At the end of the Second World War, a secret mission – Operation Tabarin – was launched to deter enemy ships from entering the region's waters. From this, BAS's roots grew, as Tabarin had a scientific role. Tabarin's work was transferred to a new organisation – the Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey.

1962 Renamed the British Antarctic Survey.

1985 BAS scientists discover a hole in the ozone layer.

'Its reputation for research is world class'

"BAS is the foremost organisation in the world on polar research. It gives the UK a leading edge in scientific research on global change. To cut BAS would be a false economy."

Tony Juniper; Environmentalist and writer

"I'm very much against any cuts. They have a fantastic building in Cambridge and their research nowadays is mainly interdisciplinary. It would be a bad idea to chop up and cut funding."

Professor Michael Rycroft; European GeoPhysical Society

"The British Antarctic Survey is Britain's civilian commitment to the South Atlantic and the Argentines and I'd be amazed if that commitment didn't remain concrete."

Professor Chris Rapley; Former BAS director

"Their work is one of the many jewels in Britain's scientific crown. Its reputation for Antarctic research is world class. Anything that threatens BAS is damaging to scientific research and Britain's reputation."

Bob Ward; LSE Grantham Institute of Climate Change

"I've been to the Antarctic three times. The Antarctic is something everyone is interested in and BAS is a centre of excellence."

Alexandra Shackleton; Granddaughter of Sir Ernest Shackleton and president of the James Caird Society

"BAS do damn good work. They're amongst the best places to receive research funding and one of the best places for young scientists to actually go out there [Antarctica] and work"

Professor James Lovelock; Independent scientist

"BAS is one of the world's leading research centres on the Antarctic."

Sir David King; Former chief scientific adviser to the government 2000-07

Jack Dean

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