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Willetts proposes separate cash for BAS following merger ‘misunderstandings’

NERC’s Duncan Wingham says merger will save £500,000 annually

Science minister David Willetts has suggested that future budgets might include a separate pot of money purely for the work of the British Antarctic Survey to “ensure a visible commitment to a UK presence in Antarctic”.

He was speaking at a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee meeting on 31 October, which was called to discuss the Natural Environment Research Council’s imminent decision on whether to merge BAS with the National Oceanography Centre.

“[The consultation] exercise has brought home the extreme sensitivity about our presence in the Antarctic,” he said. “I do consider there is an argument that NERC has a discreet funding line for Antarctic infrastructure and logistics from within the ring-fenced science budget … I think it would help deal with some of the misunderstandings raised [during the process].”

However, he added that this was something he would need to “reflect on further” and that he could not pre-empt the next spending review.

The session also heard from NERC’s chief executive, Duncan Wingham; NERC council chairman Edmund Wallis; and Ed Hill, the director of the NOC and interim director of BAS.

Wingham, who said he was “encouraged” by Willetts’ proposal, also said that NERC expects to save an estimated £500,000 per year from the merger, which is the first time an official figure has been made public.

“That may not seem much to you,” Wingham told the committee, “except observe that we’ve been seeking, wherever we can, savings of £500,000, £300,000—that’s the situation we’re in.”

However, in response to a question from the committee chairman, Labour MP Andrew Miller, he said that the main rationale for the proposed merger was scientific synergy.

Pamela Nash, Labour MP for Airdrie and Shotts, pressed Wallis and Wingham on their lack of consultation with ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There has been much public debate about the implications of a merger on the British presence in the Antarctic.

The pair acknowledged that no one from NERC had spoken to Foreign Office ministers during the process, but that Wingham had discussed the plans with senior officials. Wallis added that he didn’t feel it was “appropriate” to discuss the matter with Foreign Office ministers, as NERC’s parent department is the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Earlier this month NERC announced that a council meeting to make a decision on the merger would be brought forward from December to 1 November. It said this was due to the “damaging effects on staff morale” generated at both the centres by controversy over the consultation process.

However, Wallis hinted to the select committee that a final decision might not be made on 1 November: “We fully understand that there are very serous considerations … and we shall make our decision tomorrow, or whenever we are ready to make it.”