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Counting the cost of Antarctic research: the British Antarctic Survey merger

  • 02 Oct 2012, 15:05
  • Freya Roberts

News that Britain's Antarctic research unit will be merged with another scientific body has sparked accusations in the media that budget cuts are harming the quality of the UK's polar research. But some have claimed the merger could make sense. We explore the balance the UK must strike between cutting costs and maintaining a scientific and political presence in Antarctica.

Facing cuts to its funding, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has announced plans to merge two of its research bodies. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS), currently based in Cambridge, looks set to join forces with the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton - which NERC says will integrate two areas of closely related science.

Consultation period

In a consultation document released in September, NERC laid out its vision to create a centre of polar and ocean science. It plans to bring together the two research bodies, pooling services like HR as well as expensive resources like buildings and research ships.

Scientists we spoke to suggested this is perhaps an obvious place to make cuts. For example, BAS and NOC currently run individual shipping lines, each with two vessels - both huge operations that cost money and require a lot of manpower.

As the rising cost of marine gas oil places a heavy burden on resources, NERC says it has to consider ways to save money - and running a single fleet is one of them. It is also considering increasing the extent to which it shares vessels with other research organisations.

NERC says it hopes the move will mean it can preserve funds for doing science despite facing budget cuts. Additionally, both of the organisations' UK research bases are likely to stay operational - with polar science remaining largely at Cambridge, and oceanography staying put in Southampton.

Fears for polar research

But media coverage of NERC's plans has been critical, reflecting researchers' worries that the merger will hamper their ability to study the Antarctic.

According to an Observer article this weekend, British Antarctic Survey scientists expressed concerns that the cost-cutting move will compromise their ability to carry out climate research. Campaigner Tony Juniper also voiced fears that cuts to polar research could hamper our understanding of global change. Responding to the proposed merger, he has launched an online petition to "end plans to do away with the British Antarctic Survey".

Some scientists aren't just worried about whether the merger might constrain scientific research - they say there are wider political considerations to take into account, too. Scientists have remarked that the research BAS does in the Antarctic also helps position the UK as a leader in the region, so any threat to that output could make it harder for the UK to shape policy there. John Dudney, BAS's former deputy director, goes as far as to say:

"...the imperative for British presence in Antarctica at the current scale is political and territorial, and not scientific even though the science is of first quality."


NERC speaks out

Until today, NERC has not released any formal comments to the media - other than the September consultation document - even though it announced plans to join the two bodies in June.

NERC has released a media statement today, however, in which it argues that it has no intention of closing BAS. It says:

"Far from seeking to damage UK polar research, NERC has demonstrated its commitment to sustaining polar activity in spite of [...] financial constraints [...]. There are no plans to close BAS or to close the BAS offices in Cambridge."

NERC added it has ring-fenced funding for polar research. For the next few years, BAS will recieve at least the same level of funding. This doesn't mean BAS will emerge unscathed, however. Though its budget has been frozen in level terms, this translates to a reduction in real terms. As a result, NERC says job cuts are likely, although not due directly to the merger.

As to the UK's political presence in Antarctica, NERC says this funding freeze demonstrates its commitment to continue its current level of activity in Antarctica. It says:

"[The funding freeze] will support the continued UK leadership and participation in the Antarctic Treaty system.  The proposal to merge BAS and NOC does not change this commitment and there is no suggestion that Antarctic bases will be reduced or closed as a consequence of the merger."

 Wait and see

The consultation is set to close on the 10th October, and we won't know for a while which areas of BAS's operations will fall foul of the funding cut. It's also not clear what the plans mean for the NOC, which has received little attention despite also producing first-class research.

The debate about the status of BAS also highlights that the UK is in uncharted territory, dealing with a much weaker economy just as it finds itself navigating new environmental and political challenges in key areas like the Antarctic.

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