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NERC is not qualified to decide Britain’s Antarctic future

Mike Richardson

The UK’s first permanent Antarctic bases were established as part of a military expedition during the second world war. In 1945, those bases were put under civilian control and became part of the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, created within the Colonial Office as a means of achieving a permanent UK presence in Antarctica and its islands and waters.

In other words, the British Antarctic Survey—as FIDS was renamed in 1962—has never been a typical UK research institute. And even while its science has achieved global acclaim, the political element of its remit has remained as important as ever as, in line with the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, the UK’s claim to the British Antarctic Territory remains extant.

If the Natural Environment Research Council gets its way, the Cambridge-based BAS will soon be merged with the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and Liverpool to create the NERC Centre for Marine and Polar Science. But by treating BAS as it does any other institution, NERC misjudges the geopolitical implications of the merger and how the international community and other states, notably Argentina, would view such a move.

The research council has no expertise in polar geopolitics, nor indeed need it or should it have. The notion that it should be the sole arbiter of decisions with implications well beyond its remit is fundamentally flawed.

Any changes to BAS’s status, such as the loss of the survey’s dedicated director and its world-famous name, would reverberate across the international polar community. Concerns are already rife within that community that NERC’s proposals would be perceived as a weakening of the UK government’s commitment to Antarctica.

Argentina has always claimed the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and the British Antarctic Territory as part of greater metropolitan Argentina, and maintains a close scrutiny of British activities throughout the area. A perceived weakening in the UK’s presence in the region may well encourage Buenos Aires to increase its influence.

It could also be potentially risky to bring all of NERC’s ships, as is proposed, into a single fleet under the name of one institute. At present, two of NERC’s vessels are flagged to the UK register, and two to the Falkland Islands’ register. These latter two are prohibited from using Latin American ports, with the exception of limited access to Chile, as a gesture of solidarity with Argentina.

If NERC becomes the face of UK research in Antarctica, it is not implausible that Latin American states could perceive all its vessels as being ‘polar’, and by implication associated with the Falklands. If this meant that the RRS Discovery and RRS James Cook were denied access to South American ports, it would significantly curtail NERC operations in the South Atlantic.

NERC, then, is not entitled to state, as it does in its consultation, that the decision on the merger of BAS and the NOC is being taken from “a UK perspective”. Such a perspective can surely only be taken by government.

The UK government has never quite found the ideal solution to the question of who should be responsible for the country’s Antarctic presence. Until 1967, responsibility for BAS lay with the former Colonial Office, whose concerns were mainly political. Since then, NERC, now under the aegis of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, has provided scientific oversight.

Neither mechanism has successfully married BAS’s dual roles to provide scientific excellence in polar science while maintaining the UK’s major and year-round presence in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic. This is why in the 1980s, after the Falklands conflict, Margaret Thatcher instigated the BAS Review Group through the Cabinet Office.

The group’s role was to mediate on such matters, as well as to oversee BAS finances. But over the past year BIS seems to have cancelled meetings of the group, which has not met at all during 2012.

Given BAS’s political significance, decisions regarding its identity and governance must be taken out of NERC’s hands and given to a wider independent authority in government. One candidate might be the Cabinet Office, which should also take over chairing the BAS Review Group. Other departments besides BIS, most notably the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but also the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, must also have a voice in decision-making.

On 18 October, the House of Lords will note the centenary of the Scott Expedition to Antarctica and debate the UK’s enduring scientific legacy and ongoing presence there. On 2 November, the Commons will have before it the second reading of the Antarctic bill. Parliamentarians must take both opportunities to let it be known that NERC’s plans for BAS represent a dangerous path down which the UK ought not to proceed.

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Mike Richardson was head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Polar Regions Unit from 1992-2007