Plans to merge the British Antarctic Survey (closely linked to the Falkland Islands) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have been ruled out, Science minister David Willetts announced. In a written statement he said the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) had decided not to proceed with the proposal.
Scientists had voiced concerns that the controversial move would damage world-leading research in the region. NERC had said a single body could tackle polar science challenges.
Mr Willetts said the decision was taken during a meeting by NERC Council on Thursday. Having completed its consultation, NERC Council agreed that it [would not] proceed with the proposal, he stated.
The British Antarctic Survey is a national and international asset that delivers world-class environmental science, and this country's strategic presence in Antarctica and the South Atlantic. The UK's commitment to continuing this dual mission in the region is as strong as ever.
Earlier this week the House of Commons science select committee issued a harsh condemnation of the proposed merger. After grilling senior NERC employees on Wednesday, the committee rushed out a report demanding that the merger be abandoned. The committee said that the research council had not made a case for the merger “in terms of science or cost saving”. It also accused the council of failing to properly consider the important geopolitical role fulfilled by the Antarctic survey.
“Obviously we are pleased with the decision,” says Andrew Miller, chairman of the science select committee. However, Miller says that there are still “problems that need to be addressed”, such as the overlaps between the work of BAS and other centers.
In a move aimed at shoring up BAS geopolitical role, Willetts also announced that NERC “should have a discrete funding line for Antarctic infrastructure and logistics from within the ring-fenced science budget to ensure a visible UK commitment to maintaining Antarctic science and presence”.
But operating in the Antarctic is expensive. Willetts stated at this week’s select-committee hearing that in his view, some British facilities are desperately in need of upgrades. In addition, costs such as marine fuel are subject to nearly constant inflation. And NERC is already facing a real-terms cut in its budget, which has led to a series of job cuts.
Reacting to the news, former BAS deputy director Dr John Dudeney said he was delighted by the news. But he cautioned: However, the devil will be in the detail - the detail which is not included.
His concerns included whether the BAS fleet will remain under the control of BAS and not be merged with the NOC fleet, and whether BAS will continue to be an integrated operation carrying out a substantial research program as well a providing the presence in Antarctica, policy advice to government, and wide-ranging scientific collaboration.
BAS is the UK's national Antarctic operator and has been responsible for most of the UK's scientific research in Antarctica over the past 60 years.
The organisation employs more than 400 staff and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica.
NOC, based in Southampton, was formed in April 2010 by the merger of two marine science institutions - the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool and the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.