Decision looms on future for British polar research

 
Pengiuns in the antarctic The Antarctic is a place of mesmerising beauty

Press reports say the world famous British Antarctic Survey is doomed. A petition to save Britain's polar heritage does the rounds. Captain Scott must be turning in his icy grave.

If any of this is right? Beneath the smoke, how much fire can be found?

As with any plan for cuts in public spending, there is a swirl of confusion, resentment and rivalry amid a genuine fear about jobs.

Throw in a proposed merger of one proud institution with another - in this case, the British Antarctic Survey with the National Oceanography Centre - and you fuel the flames.

But this is more than a story about budgets and a forced and unpopular bureaucratic marriage.

It raises questions that range from the pragmatic - like how best to run British research ships - to the fundamental, like Britain's future ability to conduct polar science and its capacity to take a leading role in investigating some of the great environmental questions of our time.

And it even goes beyond that to geopolitics, to an Antarctic equivalent of the "great game" that was played out a century ago in Central Asia, where every pin on a map has diplomatic value, where national interest requires that Union Jacks continue to endure the gales of the last unclaimed continent on Earth.

Special place

Any sort of threat to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) was always bound to strike a chord. Antarctica holds a special place in British hearts. Inspired a century ago by the legends of Scott and Shackleton, this mix of awe and affection has been nurtured by imagery of the extraordinary wildlife, most recently in the landmark series Frozen Planet.

So what's really on the cards for the organisation and the people that sustain Britain's presence down South?

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What is not clear is how much will be saved by the merger itself - probably not a great deal, amid the turmoil of reorganisation”

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The blueprint that has caused the furore is laid out in a consultation document drawn up by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the body which provides the funding for BAS, in the region of £48m a year.

In brief, the proposal is to create a single centre for marine and polar science, pooling the scientists and administrative staff of BAS in Cambridge with those of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, working 'from coast to deep ocean and pole to pole'.

The science would be organised by themes, the headquarters would be in Southampton, and the two research vessels run by BAS would join those of NOC in a single fleet, also run from Southampton.

No wonder the staff of the British Antarctic Survey are feeling bruised - "pretty irked" as one told me.

First question: will the name of the institution survive the merger?

The planning document explicitly recognises how BAS is an 'international brand' which is 'likely to be beneficial' in future. One reason is that in collaborations with other countries' polar science organisations, it helps to have a clearly recognisable body with which to deal.

Another is that the name 'British Antarctic Survey' is seen to have diplomatic value too - I understand that the Foreign Office, keen to maintain Britain's profile in the South Atlantic and Antarctica, has been firm on that.

So, it's hard to imagine the name disappearing. The BAS brand will continue, though within the new centre.

What is their role?

But that raises the next obvious question: if the scientists and admin staff of BAS are supposed to merge with those of the NOC, what will that leave BAS to actually do?

Again, the merger document spells it out: the BAS site at Cambridge would be 'the focus' for all polar logistics, operations and engineering including the Antarctic research stations and aircraft.

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The Foreign Office is watching this process closely, scrutiny that became more intense during the recent flare-up with Argentina over the Falkland Islands”

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To outsiders, the British presence in Antarctica looks set to remain under the banner of the British Antarctic Survey. Internally, BAS becomes a department of the new marine and polar centre.

The background, as with all public sector bodies, is that the Natural Environment Research Council is seeing its budget of nearly £300m shrink under the current spending round.

NERC spends the money on a range of projects from plant biology to sustainable food production to earthquake research so polar science has to fight its corner.

In the last spending round, BAS did better than most but nothing about work in the polar regions in easy, so nothing comes cheap either. Supplies to the bases need to be brought in by ship, at a cost of roughly £10m a year, much of that spent on fuel.

Personnel need to be ferried in by plane - in 2006 I joined one of the flights from the Falklands to Britain's largest Antarctic base at Rothera.

Smaller planes are then needed to get scientists into the field. All of these big-ticket items come with a hefty bill.

More collaboration

What is not clear is how much will be saved by the merger itself. Probably not a great deal, amid the turmoil of reorganisation.

Antarctic Britain has always taken a lead in Antarctic research

And that is accepted by NERC, which instead says the primary motive is making the overall science effort more effective by creating 'synergies' between the marine researchers and the polar people - bluntly, getting them to collaborate more routinely and scheduling the four ships more coherently.

Examples include studying the 'coupling' of ice and ocean to better understand sea level rise; identifying climate 'tipping points'; investigating the flows of carbon between polar and sub-polar sinks and sources.

The argument is that while BAS science has yielded the discovery of the ozone hole and other important findings on the glaciers and biology of the Antarctic Peninsular, the future lies in collaboration.

The plan to drill through the Antarctic ice-sheet to sample the hidden waters of Lake Ellsworth in December involves BAS and NOC and other bodies and is led by a professor from Bristol University.

A huge research effort to investigate the mighty Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica, feared to be one of the most vulnerable to ocean warming, also includes a host of organisations with BAS playing a prominent role.

Falklands row

But behind the science, another force is at work. The Foreign Office is watching this process closely, scrutiny that became more intense during the recent flare-up with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

BAS flies the flag at no fewer than four sites in Antarctica and one on South Georgia. Under the Antarctic Treaty, all territorial claims are put on hold; the primary activity allowed is science.

That is fine as long as science funding is steady, less so when budgets are tightened. If this spending round is causing tension, imagine what the next one might do? How strong is the science case for maintaining such a large physical presence down South?

If research money is better spent elsewhere, like the fast-changing Arctic for example, who should pay to keep the southern bases going? Expect some awkward Whitehall struggles ahead.

Nobody likes change and mergers can be the worst. I recall reporting on the bitter fighting in the early 1990s over plans to combine army regiments, many of them centuries-old and rightly proud of long lists of battle honours.

Right now the British Antarctic Survey is preparing to send off about 150 scientists and personnel for the regular summer research season.

Amid the mesmerising beauty, the work will be intense. But this time people will also be keeping an ear out for some crucial news from distant Britain. The decision on the merger, and precisely what it will mean for BAS and for them, is due in December.

 
David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 27.

    As climate change becomes ever more complex, do we really want to downgrade our understanding?

    Black-Pearl. If you really want to read about Antarctica, go to

    http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

    The Arctic record minimum was 6 Standard Deviations and 49% under the long term average.
    The Antarctic record maximum was 2.5 SD and 0.9% over the average.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 26.

    Why is ANYONE surprised? It mirrors the short-term decisions made the last time a Tory government came to power. On that occasion, budget cuts in the S. Atlantic led to the Falklands War. Scientific research costs such a tiny amount (compared to millions wasted on processes such as rail franchises!), and brings the country long-term benefits. BAS should be expanding, not merging.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 25.

    This merger has no cost saving benefits, and really is just an excuse to reduce BAS's public profile so that it can be quietly downsized in the future. Sign the petition to save the BAS and keep this great British institution doing world class science. Sign it here: http://tinyurl.com/96b83n9

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 24.

    Surely some of the wasted money this government gives in foreign aid [£12 Billion in 2013?] could fund more Antarctic research. India has said it doesn't want the 350 Million we are giving.

    Utter madness!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 23.

    What does it contribute to the defence of the nation?

    Not much, but it helps make it one worth defending...

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 22.

    20.beesaman
    Crocodile tears from the BBC over the BAS
    Come on, you couldn't even be bothered to report the record ice extent in the Antarctic a few days ago
    **
    Thats because they are looking for a plausible sounding CO2 link.
    Biased Broadcasting Corp.
    Never would have believed it in the past.
    When Germany get those 23 coal & gas power stations they're building fired up it might get warmer

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 21.

    19.Gavin
    this govt is simply destroying everything that makes this country great - this includes our scientific standing in the World. Imbeciles the lot of them. Time to make a stand.
    ***
    Just CUT Sure Start (paying for single mothers for stays at Centre Parks) that would save millions.
    Priorities of our country need to be re addressed.

    18.Drunken Hobo
    We need aircraft carriers also.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 20.

    Crocodile tears from the BBC over the BAS!
    Come on, you couldn't even be bothered to report the record ice extent in the Antarctic a few days ago.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 19.

    this government is simply destroying everything that makes this country great - this includes our scientific standing in the World. Imbeciles the lot of them. Time to make a stand.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 18.

    We don't need a pointless waste of resources such as this. What good has the BAS ever done? They may have discovered the Antarctic ozone hole, which left unnoticed would have been the greatest ecological disaster in human history, but is that really worth £48m per year? That could buy us 1/70th of an unusable aircraft carrier! I think I know what is more useful.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 17.

    15.cwrwda
    One crucial finding with regard CO2 levels came recently from ice core samples extracted and analysed by BAS, these reveal CO2 levels are higher now than in the last 800,000 years, what more proof do you deniers need to accept humans are affecting climate change,
    ***
    LOL & its been getting colder in the Sth.Hemephere for 16 yrs.
    The trace gas CO2 increases but not in line with temp

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 16.

    Had this political shower been in charge there would be no wish to leave the EU as we would all now be French!
    Had they been in power in 1827, it would have been "too expensive" to run the Rainhill Trials, thus no rail travel!
    We have No-one with drive and Vision in Whitehall..they are all generating bureaucracy!

    GB used to demonstrate leadership. Now it is cowed by PC! Simple!

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 15.

    One crucial finding with regard CO2 levels came recently from ice core samples extracted and analysed by BAS, these reveal CO2 levels are higher now than in the last 800,000 years, what more proof do you deniers need to accept humans are affecting climate change, and indeed pushing it over the edge (outside of the natural cycle) resulting in a run-away and disasterous greenhouse effect.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 14.

    As someone who worked for 2.5 years on a British Antarctic Base, Halley, I am deeply saddened by this news, and by some of the usual 'head in the sand' comments on here. The dataset BAS has built up over the years is priceless, polar research is more critical now than ever before.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 13.

    Perhaps the scientists at the British Antarctic Survey have been doing their job too well recently, and with too much integrity: No sign of catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, and Antarctic sea-ice is increasing.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 12.

    Come and hear Richard Kitney talk about synthetic biology at a Friends of Imperial College lecture open to the public entitled "Engineering novel biological devices" on 23 October at 7.00pm in the Sir Alexander Fleming Building, Imperial College, SW7 2AZ. Richard is Professor of Biomedical Systems Engineering in the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College. www.friendsofimperial.org.uk

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 11.

    BAS is a global inspiration, keep BAS doing the good work. Reorganizations create loss and waste, not efficiency. If it wasn't for BAS, we'd be sunburnt and cancerous from ozone loss, and clueless about the increasingly rapid rate of change in the most important ice sheets on the planet.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 10.

    Madness...
    So no money is going to be saved and the whole reason is to create "synergies".

    It seems that you have a world leading scientific organisation that is already collaborating (on many projects like drilling into Lake Elsworth).

    Moving the management further away will somehow make BAS more effective???

    This will result in a more inefficient organisation and waste more taxpayers money.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 9.

    And think of how much of that dirty carbon it would save! 20000 tonnes per annun according to the Beeb in 2007

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6589855.stm

    (do as we say not as we do)

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 8.

    I think we could save a fortune by cutting back on all those state structures that could be done better at a european level (e.g. scrap independent defence, large numbers of quangos, some of the judiciary, foreign and commonweath etc, etc, etc).

    The potential savings are in the many hundreds of millions. Then we can carry on the important research in both arctics.

 

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