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NERC seizes on Willetts’ offer for separate Antarctic funding

The Natural Environment Research Council’s future plans for the British Antarctic Survey will be based on science minister David Willetts’ suggestion that the organisation could receive its own ring-fenced budget.

At a NERC council meeting on 1 November, it was decided to cancel a controversial plan to merge BAS with the National Oceanography Centre.

However, the final decision was announced not by NERC but by science minister David Willetts on 2 November. “Having completed its consultation, NERC Council agreed that it will not proceed with the proposal for merger,” read a statement from the minister.

NERC now says that it is making plans for the future based on an idea that Willetts put forward at a meeting in parliament this week—that NERC should have a separate budget for running projects in the Antarctic.

In a short statement the council said: “In light of the minister’s statement in respect of a discrete funding line for Antarctic infrastructure and logistics, NERC will be considering ways forward.”

Nick Owens, director of BAS until March this year, says such a decision would be “rather ironic” since he suggested the same solution to NERC and officials from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in the past. They all rejected the idea, he says, and cited the Haldane principle, which is supposed to prevent ministers from interfering in research funding decisions, as a reason.

NERC has now been urged to appoint a separate director for BAS rather than allowing Ed Hill, also director of the NOC, to continue to lead BAS as its interim director. Hill has directed both institutes for the eight months since Owens’ departure.

“We are concerned that we are still left in a situation where we do not have an independent director and we strongly hope that that is resolved as swiftly as possible,” a BAS employee told Research Fortnight.

MPs debating the Antarctic Bill in the House of Commons welcomed the decision to halt the merger, but echoed the call for action to move the situation at BAS forward.

Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, said that NERC must focus on the future of BAS, but that there were “real questions” to be asked about why a separate director had not been appointed already.

In a statement given to the Science Media Centre, John Dudeney, the former deputy director of BAS, said that while he was delighted by the decision, “the devil will be in the detail—the detail which is not included”. He added that NERC would have to “move swiftly” to appoint senior staff and decide on the future management of NERC ships, adding it needed “to reflect on how they went about the process in this case”.

In a separate statement, a spokeswoman for the environmental group Friends of the Earth said NERC “still has questions to answer about why and how this merger was proposed in the first place”.