Scientists are pushing to ensure that the United Kingdom plays a prominent role in an international project to explore the ocean bed and possibly drill through the earth's crust for the first time.
The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program will probe the subterranean world to produce scientific insights into climate change, the genesis of life and the mechanisms behind earthquakes.
While the UK has declared its interest, some experts are concerned that the nation's high level of involvement in the IODP's predecessor, the Ocean Drilling Program, might not be maintained.
The Natural Environment Research Council, which is responsible for the country's Pounds 2.1 million annual ODP subscription and Pounds 500,000 support programme, is considering the matter.
It could opt for individual membership, giving UK scientists a high level of access to the IODP's facilities, or for a European consortium, which could mean less national involvement.
Andrew Kingdon, the UK's ODP programme manager, said details of how the IODP will be organised, its scientific mission and the cost of membership were still uncertain and that a British decision was at least a year away.
The IODP will succeed the ODP in 2003, and will ultimately involve two drilling vessels and other platforms, including seabed observatories. One of the new ships will incorporate high-tech innovations for deeper drilling.
This will enable scientists to study gas hydrates buried in the continental margins, whose sudden release in the past may have triggered shifts in global climate.
Scientists may also be able to drill through more than 4km of crust, probably beneath the eastern Pacific, to get at unaltered material from the earth's hot upper mantle for the first time.
Hyun-Chul Han, associate secretariat of the Korean ODP, said this would enable scientists to resolve disputes as to the basic composition of our planet.
Jock Keene, director of ODP Australia, added that it "should resolve problems on the origins of earthquakes, formation of mineral deposits and the new field of the subterranean living microbes".