U.K. scientists are relieved by the decision, announced today, to stop a proposed merger between the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). But their relief is tempered by concerns about whether funding cuts will erode the survey's celebrated reputation in polar research.
"BAS is a world-class institution. If it's not broke, don't fix it—especially if it's just for the sake of some bureaucratic organization chart that conceals the true motive of cutting budgets," says Thomas Crowley, a climate scientist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.
In June, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which oversees both centers, had proposed the merger, saying it would lower the cost of maintaining the ice-strengthened BAS fleet and the blue-water-going NOC fleet as well as "integrat[ing] these areas of science more closely." But researchers rose up in opposition, arguing that the merger was ill-conceived, that it might hamper BAS's mission, and that it wasn't clear how it would save money. On Wednesday the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee urged NERC to cancel the merger on the grounds that NERC hadn't made its case. "We are sympathetic to NERC's requirements to save money and sympathetic to several of the suggestions they have to do this but they did not make the case that merging BAS and NOC was the best way to achieve those," said Member of Parliament Andrew Miller, the chair of the committee.
Yesterday, NERC debated the merger behind closed doors and today government officials revealed its decision. "NERC Council agreed that it will not proceed with the proposal for merger," science minister David Willetts said in a statement. "The British Antarctic Survey and National Oceanography Centre will remain as NERC's centres."
The relief among many scientists was palpable."The Government and the NERC should be congratulated for listening to the scientific community and removing the threat to the British Antarctic Survey," said Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, today in a statement. "The UK's world-class science base is being hit hard by the cuts to funding resulting from the Comprehensive Spending Review, and the Survey was set to become one of the most high-profile casualties."
But the ongoing uncertainty has cast a pall over what was supposed to be a banner year for BAS. Last month, BAS scientists headed to Antarctica to gear up for a historic penetration through more than 3 kilometers of ice into Antarctica's subglacial Lake Ellsworth. And BAS's new, state-of-the-art Halley atmospheric research station in the Weddell Sea—built in the same location where BAS scientists discovered the ozone hole over Antarctica in 1985—is now up and running. But the excitement was dampened by the departure earlier this year of the director and two other senior staff members, likely due to conflict with NERC over the proposed merger.
NERC did not return requests for additional comment, pointing only to today's statement that notes it considered the opinions of Parliament, the polar affairs community, and NERC staff in making the decision. The statement also noted that NERC is committed to funding BAS at £42 million a year through 2015.
But having dodged a bullet, the polar research community is still very concerned about what's going to happen to BAS, says John Dudeney, a former deputy director of BAS who retired from the organization in 2006. Dudeney says the first task facing the survey is to recruit new leadership. Ed Hill, the interim director of BAS, is also the head of NOC and was charged by NERC with overseeing the consultation about the proposed merger. In its report, the Science and Technology Committee noted that Hill's appointment to run the consultation "could create an impression that the consultation process lacks openness or objectivity."
The question of merging the fleets also looms large. Combining BAS's two ice-strengthened ships with NOC's two blue-water ships "was a very silly idea, as far as I'm concerned," Dudeney says, because the needs of the two fleets are starkly different and previous independent reviews suggest that merging wouldn't increase flexibility or produce the desired "synergy."
A third challenge concerns the survey's budget. One part of NERC's statement today may be particularly troubling: The statement calls for "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." Dudeney fears that statement could signify changes in the current funding structure, by which BAS provides support for both logistics and science.
The uncertainty has taken a toll on BAS scientists and staff members. "I've never seen morale so bad in BAS," Dudeney says. "It's really sad, because this is a year in particular where the U.K. could be really celebrating success in Antarctica."