There has been a lot of press reporting following the announcement by NERC that they were seeking consultation regarding the possible merger of British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC).
After an intriguing public appearance by the Science Minister David Willetts and the senior management team associated with NERC and NOC in front of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the merger is now off.
There are lots of reasons that might be offered up for such an apparent volte-face by NERC (the consultation document appeared to argue strongly for such a merger – indeed I don’t recall reading any argument reallly for anything but merger) ranging from the case for merger did not persuade a sufficient number of stakeholders (including as it turns out MPs and Peers who wished to subject the proposal to parliamentary scrutiny) to an insufficient understanding of the prevailing geopolitics of the Antarctic.
The Science Minister issued a simple statement on 2 November which noted the following:
The British Antarctic Survey is a national and international asset that delivers world-class environmental science, and this country’s strategic presence in Antarctica and the South Atlantic. The UK’s commitment to continuing this dual mission in the region is as strong as ever.
NERC has already committed to maintain the funding of the British Antarctic Survey at £42m a year for the rest of this spending review period.
Looking to the future – though without pre-empting the timing and size of the next spending review settlement – I consider that NERC should have 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.
There has been some press reporting of the statement and its aftermath. What is striking, regardless of what might still happen to BAS as organization (and there is still work to be done regarding funding, organization and long term positioning inside or possibly outside NERC), how explicit those statement have been about the UK strategic presence in the Antarctic and the South Atlantic. In the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on the proposed merger, moreover, it is explicitly noted that:
This geopolitical aspect to the British Antarctic Survey’s work is notably absent from considerations in the consultation document, save for a brief note that “the name British Antarctic Survey is internationally recognised”. There are therefore serious concerns regarding whether NERC has the competence to take decisions that potentially have such geopolitically significant consequences. During oral evidence, the Science Minister and NERC Chair conceded that there are lessons to be learned from how the geopolitical aspect of this matter have been handled during the consultation.
As someone who has taken a long-term interest in this matter, I can hardly wait to see how ‘lessons’ might be learnt, and whether this extract from a longer committee report hints at a different kind of future for BAS and Britain’s relationship with the Antarctic/South Atlantic in the face of fraught relations with Argentina. The cited link to the brand power (and the production and citation of peer-reviewed polar science by BAS is a key indicator in an assessment such as this) to geo-power is also intriguing. Joseph Nye would probably call it ‘soft power’.