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Decision on BAS merger brought forward to next week

The Natural Environment Research Council is to bring forward a decision on a proposal to merge the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre.

Originally, the NERC council was to hold a meeting about the plans in December but a decision will now be made a summit on 1 November.

NERC says the decision follows concern that the uncertainty around the proposal is “having a damaging effect on staff morale in the two centres”.

The discussion will now take place at a closed council meeting, based on the results of a month-long consultation run by NERC, which closed on 10 October.

A summary of the consultation responses will be “scrutinised” by Robert Allison, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University. Allison will have access to the consultation responses and check the summary before it is presented at the meeting but will not attend the meeting or assess the final decision.

A NERC spokeswoman says Duncan Wingham, chief executive of NERC, decided to appoint Allison after “having taken soundings from within the NERC community”.

She added that Allison was chosen because he is “a well known figure in the academic world, has the necessary status and credibility, is known to NERC and knows NERC but is not formally associated with NERC and can therefore be seen as genuinely independent”. He has also performed this sort of independent assessment before for another organisation, she says.

Science minister David Willetts said in the House of Commons on 23 October that the proposed merger would have “no effect” on the UK’s commitment to scientific excellence in Antarctica.

Willetts was responding to a question by Labour’s shadow science minister Chi Onwurah on 23 October. Onwurah asked what assessment Willetts had made of the merger’s “likely effect on the international reputation of British polar research”.

“Any changes would have no effect on the UK’s commitment to scientific excellence in Antarctica nor on the existing footprint of scientific bases and research ships in the South Atlantic,” said Willetts. “The vision for the new centre is to become by 2020 a world-leading centre for integrated marine and polar science—from coast to deep ocean and from pole to pole.”