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UK Antarctic research centre’s future hangs in the balance

UPDATE: The Commons science select committee has now demanded the merger be abandoned, in what must be the fastest-produced select committee report ever (four and half hours from end of meeting).

The committee says NERC has failed to make a case for the merger based on either science or cost savings. Its strongly worded report says NERC has also failed to consult properly on whether a merger would advance marine and polar science. The committee also says that NERC has failed to consider the geopolitical role that BAS plays in the South Atlantic. “Nor has it demonstrated an awareness of UK political commitments on protecting the environment, and polar regions in particular,” says the report.

 

British politicians have harshly criticised proposals to merge two world-leading research institutes, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre. But even if it continues independently, it was also confirmed today that 10% of science staff at BAS are likely to lose their jobs.

Earlier this year the Natural Environment Research Council, which funds environmental research in the UK, proposed merging BAS with another of its research centres, the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. A final decision is due tomorrow. Researchers immediately voiced concerns that this would mean the end of a renowned polar institute that has been behind discoveries such as the hole in the ozone layer.

Last week Joan Walley, chairwoman of Parliament’s environmental audit committee, requested that the merger, which would save around £500,000 a year be scrapped.

Under questioning from Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee today, science minister David Willetts said that there was no question that Britain’s geo-politically vital presence in Antarctica was at risk. He even suggested that spending on infrastructure and logistics in the region – which would include the science bases on the continent and research ships – could be given special ring-fencing within NERC’s budget.

But this would mean the actual science conducted in the region would have to fight for cash in an even smaller and more competitive funding pool with other environmental and natural science research proposals. And Willetts also said he had seen with his own eyes the dire need for some British facilities in the Antarctic to be upgraded. He said that the standards of some of the buildings out there were lower than a “suburban semi[-detached house] in Croydon”.

BAS also faces job cuts as part of cost saving efforts by the research council, which faces a real terms cut in its funding. This is a separate process not connect to the potential merger, said Ed Hill, interim director of BAS and director of the National Oceanography Centre.

Around £3 million needs to be saved at BAS over the next few years, said Hill. This will be roughly evenly split between savings in infrastructure spending and science. Around five jobs will go in the former section with around 18 science posts vanishing. BAS has around 160 science staff. (The National Oceanography Centre has already experienced its own job cuts, see: UK oceanography cuts make global waves)

Hill also told today’s parliamentary hearing that NERC is already looking at options to curtail the use of its research fleet if future funding cuts make this necessary. Research vessels could be mothballed or hired out, he said.

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