Antarctic merger is frozen out

Survey stays intact after politicians and scientists put proposal on ice. Paul Jump writes

November 8, 2012

The chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee has denied putting undue political pressure on the Natural Environment Research Council ahead of its widely welcomed decision to abandon the proposed merger between the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre.

On the eve of a meeting of Nerc’s council on 1 November, at which the final decision was due to be taken, the select committee released a report critical of the merger proposal.

It was published just hours after a committee hearing with senior Nerc figures, who insisted that the merger would promote scientific impact and synergy and save about £500,000 a year.

The proposal, published for consultation in September, provoked widespread concern about the loss of the iconic British Antarctic Survey name and what that might signal about the UK’s commitment to its presence in the South Atlantic.

In its report, published on 31 October, the select committee says Nerc had failed to provide an “adequate evidence base” and had not given adequate consideration to the BAS’ “geopolitical role”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education after Nerc’s decision to abandon the merger was announced on 2 November, the select committee’s chair, Andrew Miller, denied that the report’s conclusions had been determined before the hearing with Nerc took place.

He also defended the committee’s involvement, arguing that since its members were not ministers, the Haldane principle did not apply.

Mr Miller added that it had been impossible to ignore the high level of concern from “extremely reputable parts of the scientific community” and prominent public figures such as the former US vice-president Al Gore.

He said that Nerc needed to think harder about how to “keep up the morale of [its scientists] and protect the underlying science in the most cost-effective way”.

One suggestion was for it to make greater use of the Research Councils UK Shared Services Centre.

“It would be wrong to tell Nerc what it should be doing, but our attitude is very much that we want to help them,” Mr Miller said.

He suggested that the select committee’s forthcoming inquiry into marine science could be an “opportune moment” to examine the issues in more detail.

Although Mr Miller said it was worth considering establishing a discrete funding stream for Antarctic “infrastructure and logistics” - an idea first mooted during the select committee hearing by David Willetts, the universities and science minister - he worried that it might inhibit the coordination of polar science with programmes in related disciplines.

Mr Willetts told the hearing that Nerc’s final decision on the merger had been brought forward because there was such a level of public concern that it could be affecting morale at the BAS.

He welcomed the select committee’s decision to bring forward its own hearing - which it publicly called on Nerc chief executive Duncan Wingham to attend - and he was sure that its report would be “taken very seriously” by the research council.

Mr Willetts said that “the organisation of operational matters within the UK” was a matter for Nerc but added that the government had a legitimate interest because of its commitment to maintain a scientific “footprint” in the Antarctic.

Mark Maslin, professor of climate science at University College London, praised Nerc for being “strong and confident enough” to reverse its original decision.

“I am not worried about political influence because scientists are also aware of the need to maintain a strong BAS to ensure continued excellent work in both the Arctic and Antarctic,” he added.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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