Polar Geopolitics? The Future of British Antarctic Survey

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Times Higher Educationmagazine about the proposed merger of British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). To cut a long story short, the funding council Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) issued a consultation document about the future of BAS and NOC. I read the document and felt that it was simply too inattentive to what we might term ‘polar geopolitics’. Whatever one might think of the funding regime surrounding BAS (or its logistical structures/management team), the organization for the last fifty years has been in the frontline in terms of defending UK interests in the South Atlantic and Antarctic. At present, the UK has three overseas territories to concern itself with – British Antarctic Territory, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and of course the Falkland Islands. All of these territories are contested by Argentina. BAS plays an essential role in the Antarctic and South Georgia by not only conducting high quality polar science but also by literally being the UK’s sovereign presence in the region. Indeed, if was one looking for evidence of how a particular state mobilizes the discourses, practices and performances associated with ‘scientific sovereignty’ then look no further than BAS.

I wrote a second piece entitled Polar Shambles recently for the Prospect blog . This followed up with a critique of this merger document and process, and noted my surprise that a research council should be charged with such a decision. BAS’s history is unusual and ever since 1982 there has been a more public recognition that science, geopolitics and diplomacy are powerful bed-fellows in the Antarctic context. It is also worth noting that BAS uses the Falkland Islands as a forward operating base.

The blog piece was picked up by the Independent on Sunday in their recent article announcing that the merger was not likely to go ahead now. And this Wednesday the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee will request the company of Science Minister David Willetts and senior management of NERC (as well as the interim director of BAS and NOC) in order to explain where things stand with regard to the merger. NERC is expected to make a final decision this Thursday (i.e. 1 November).  Given the IoS story it seems reasonable to assume that some other strategy is going to be offered up for consideration.

Personally speaking, I would have thought that BAS needs to be removed from NERC and funded as a separate entity. There are four interested government departments (FCO, DECC, BIS and MOD) and they all, in their different ways, have an interest in polar science, the geopolitics of the Antarctic, polar diplomacy and one should not forget the work that BAS does in the Arctic region as well. I very much hope that the Science Minister will come to the Science and Technology Committee and unveil a clear vision for BAS, in part perhaps inspired by his own visit to the Antarctic earlier this year.

I will write a short follow-up piece next week.

KD

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