The Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey faces an uncertain future. The body that funds it, the Natural Environment Research Council, has outlined proposals to merge it with the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton to create a new body, the Centre for Marine and Polar Science.
For the past 20 years I have taken a keen interest in the history of the survey as part of a wider concern for understanding the contested geopolitics of the Falkland Islands, the South West Atlantic and the Antarctic. One striking element missing from recent newspaper stories about the survey's future is its geopolitical rationale and how this has sat uneasily with its scientific mission.
The British Antarctic Survey was established in 1962 and replaced an organisation called the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, or FIDS. FIDS was mandated to survey what was then called the Falkland Islands Dependencies (now the British Antarctic Territory), a huge expanse of ice, rock and water that was (and still is) counterclaimed by Argentina and Chile.
In light of these realities, FIDS was funded by the Colonial Office and expected to fly the flag, make maps and administer an area seven times larger than the UK. At its height in the late 1950s, it was maintaining a network of 19 bases and (using dog sledges, ships and planes) surveying and mapping an area covering thousands of square miles.
This was a tall order but one carried out with great vigour by the legendary director of FIDS and later the British Antarctic Survey, Sir Vivian Fuchs (who held the posts from 1958 to 1973). But there was always a tension: the survey served two masters. On the one hand, from the 1960s onwards it was expected to be a premier league scientific organisation. When the UK signed the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, there was an expectation by the Treasury that the programme's funding could be cut because agreement had been reached to manage conflicting territorial claims. Fuchs and his colleagues successfully lobbied civil servants and ministers to secure funding for a scientific programme that would enable the UK to maintain some parity with the US in terms of scientific reputation. Science remains the currency of influence in Antarctica and the UK performs well in polar league tables.
On the other hand, from the 1960s onwards, the survey still had to perform a covert geopolitical role. Argentina and Chile were considered hostile counterclaimants and there was no guarantee that the Antarctic Treaty would survive. The 1982 Falklands conflict reminded Margaret Thatcher's government that the UK's most southerly possessions were not immune from danger. In 2001, a research base (King Edward Point) was opened in South Georgia precisely to ensure that the island was occupied when a small detachment of Royal Marines left.
Fast-forward to the era of austerity and coalition government. Since David Cameron took office, Anglo-Argentine relations have deteriorated and are now at their lowest ebb since 1982. To make matters worse, defence cuts have led to anxieties about the UK's capacity to win a repeat of the Falklands war.
I do not think Argentina is going to invade the Falklands any time soon: it does not need to. It can simply wait and see what pressure it can apply, safe in the knowledge that both distance and cost count against the UK. The survey has a forward operating base in the Falklands, and these contested islands are often seen as the gateway to the UK's South Atlantic and Antarctic Overseas Territories.
The scientists who work for the British Antarctic Survey produce world-class research inter alia on the Antarctic Peninsula's climate and ice-shelf history. Top-flight journals such as Nature publish their work on the continent's ice-sheet stability, underlying geology and sub-glacial lakes. This work is contributing to a more sophisticated understanding of sea-level and climate change. British polar science was a critical element of UK influence within the Antarctic Treaty System - and, to be blunt, in preserving UK interests in the Antarctic, South Georgia and the South Atlantic.
The Nerc consultation document gives no detail about the financial benefits arising from a merger, but it does articulate a vision of research synergies and rationalisation. Perhaps given the UK's geopolitical and scientific interests in the Antarctic and the funding cuts faced by Nerc, might it be better to fund the survey independently? This could take the form of a special grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office explicitly recognising that the survey is the UK's premier organisation designed to assist in the promotion of "scientific sovereignty". At least such an approach would have the merit of being straightforward, rather than asking Nerc to fudge the issues. Polar, atmospheric and oceanic scientists are perfectly capable of working together without a merger. And a merger is not going to make the Antarctic's contested geopolitics go away.