The UK government has just released a new document entitled, UK Science in Antarctica 2014-2020. It is an important intervention following on from the former Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts’ reminder that the UK and organisations such as as British Antarctic Survey (BAS) were as much part of a ‘scientific presence‘ as a ‘strategic presence’ (sometimes shortened to simply ‘presence’). As the foreword by Willetts and FCO minister Mark Simmonds note, “In all its actions involving science and presence in the region the UK fully respects and supports of the Antarctic Treaty System, to ensure that the region remains a continent devoted to peace and science”.
From my point of view as a polar geopolitics specialist, the document is notable for some of its explicit strategic/geopolitical contextualising. For example, on page 7 the document muses on “the key research areas that Government will invest in, the geopolitical and economic context in which we work, and the value we place on working with international partners”. As with the 2013 Arctic Policy Framework, the content is described as a ‘living document’ that will be revised as and when needed. The term ‘presence’ is to be found in the document and acts as euphemism for the fact the UK is a claimant state and has a long standing territorial dispute with two South American neighbours, Argentina and Chile. Recently, issues such as outer continental claim delimitation have added extra spice to something that was once called ‘the Antarctic problem’.
While others will reflect on the scientific priorities in more detail, there is some other interesting material to mull over regarding infrastructure and reminders to readers that a new polar vessel (to be operational in 2019) will contribute further to that ‘presence’. Under the final section ‘impact’, we also have another indicator of the significance of regional relationships – the 2012 UK-Chile MOU on scientific and logistical collaboration is significant especially in the light of continued tension with Argentina and the 2011 arrangement with Norway has bi-polar significance given long-standing UK-Norwegian co-operation in Arctic matters as well. Norway is another Antarctic claimant state and is geographically proximate to the UK’s territorial claim. Both countries collaborate over heritage and science matters.
Finally, it is worth noting that the language of asset management, collaborate and impact runs through the document making it clear that UK polar science is expected to deliver value for money (a bang or two for the proverbial buck) and economic benefit within and beyond Antarctica. While it might seem far removed from the kind of language used to herald into existence BAS in 1962, it is worth remembering that its predecessor the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey was strongly tied to the commercial interests of the whaling industry. So articulating the need for further scientific and business collaboration is not new.