Why is the government pulling the plug on Antarctic science?

Over the Easter weekend it was quietly reported that the government intends to cut the budget of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the country’s premier polar research institute, by 25% over the next several years (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/exclusive-british-polar-research-in-crisis-7627014.html)  Hardly a scandal, you might think, as many ordinary citizens struggle to differentiate between the Arctic and the Antarctic - I know of what I speak – how many times have I been asked ‘did you see any polar bears?’ when I worked in Antarctica.

        Then, on Easter Monday, a hastily issued statement from the government that BAS was being thrown a ‘lifeline’ of £42 million until 2015 – tomorrow, in polar science terms, which requires long-term planning and infrastructure investment. There’s a strong feeling in the Antarctic research community that this lifeline, if it really shows up, is no more than a stay of execution.

        Meanwhile the more interesting revelation of the first article was of the realpolitik behind the scenes involving Nick Owens, the (now-ex) BAS Director, Universities and Science Minister David Willets, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and ending up in the lap of the Prime Minister himself, who reportedly had to intervene to save BAS from its parent body, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) who seem to be bent on dismantling its core scientific research activities.


         I’m not a scientist. I’m just a writer who spent over four months in Antarctica  –possibly the longest period a creative writer has spent on the continent. I went in 2005-6 with BAS, funded by the Arts Council England’s International Fellowship programme, a now defunct initiative, a casualty of funding cuts. I wrote four books out of the experience – three more than I intended. While there I helped out with oceanographic data collection, refuelled planes, stacked boxes of canned mushrooms, and interviewed almost every scientist and government official who BAS flew down to base to try to keep the policy and funding lines that feed it alive while I was there.


         I realise now that I witnessed British polar research – at least the Antarctic arm of it – in its heyday. British Antarctic science research has been a resounding success. A soon to be published study (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/%28ISSN%291751-8369) co-authored by two BAS scientists shows that over the last 18 years, UK scientists have published the highest number of research papers, and that the UK has exercised the greatest political influence over the region of any of the 49 signatory nations to the Antarctic Treaty. In light of this, the government’s desire to pull the plug on Antarctic research, or at least wage a war of attrition against it, seems bizarre and illogical.

         The Antarctic is the only landmass in the world owned by no-one. It’s a Western-Europe-plus-Ukraine-sized outdoor laboratory for science, of which climate change science is the most important strand. It’s not all about the accelerating ice streams and melting glaciers, of course. The FCO are keen to maintain a strategic presence in the form of a British scientific operation who work out of the Falklands. The Royal Navy presence in the region is weak, as anyone who spends time in the Falklands and the Antarctic knows – after nearly sinking their own polar patrol ship, the Endurance, they have finally deployed a new vessel this year. Meanwhile BAS’s main research ship, the RRS James Clark Ross, is registered in the Islands, a political decision which makes for a logistical headache; due to Argentina’s recent agitations over the sovereignty of the islands the ship (which is used exclusively for scientific research) is now persona non grata in almost every South American port. BAS is political, in this sense; its work is key to any future claim of British interest in the Antarctic, the Falklands and the Southern Ocean, including ensuring the islanders’ right to self-determination.

          But it seems it all congeals in bottom-line Keynesian economics. This government think they can outsource and downsize and monetarise what is left of science – employing the feral neoliberal model of withdrawing state funds and stand back and watch while the market regulates excellence. The market does very little for science. Independent research funding is what nets results.

         I’ve observed British scientists at work in the Antarctic, doing oceanography off small rigid inflatable boats in treacherous waters, coaxing ice cores over two kilometres down from the ice sheet, radaring ice streams on the move at the rate of several metres per year. I never witnessed any waste of resources (something you can’t say about the Ministry of Defence). Instead, oil, gas and other expensive consumables are stretched to the limit. The fact that British scientists have been exponentially more productive, in terms of published research, than any other nation doing science in the Antarctic, is impressive, but they’ve also done it on a comparative shoestring.

         I’ve since observed other nations’ polar research work at close quarters. They are also hardy and thrifty, and do excellent work. But I’ve never seen anything in my six years of subsequent engagement as a writer with polar science like what I witnessed in the ‘British’ Antarctic – on the ships, the bases, in remote tent camps on the ice cap, in terms of the quality of research, determination and personal commitment. There is a heightened awareness in the British polar science community that the Antarctic really is an oracle. The ice cores tell us what has happened to our planet in the past, and the data they relinquish project our planetary future.

         At the same time, Antarctic science is highly collaborative; few other disciplines give British scientists an opportunity to work so openly with scientists from other nations. Speaking of sovereignty, could the British government’s austral austerity drive have anything to do with a re-focussing on the Arctic, possibly the venue for the next Cold War, fought or waged over dwindling global petroleum reserves? As Reuters noted last weekend, “this summer will see more human activity in the Arctic than ever before, with oil giant Shell engaged in major exploration and an expected further rise in fishing, tourism and regional shipping”. Meanwhile any gas and oil locked beneath the Antarctic ice sheet or in its surrounding waters are declared off-limits by the Antarctic treaty.

        Britain has a special relationship with the Antarctic, a quirky association that can’t be explained entirely by romantic sentiment of the explorer age, heroic deaths in icy tents, a penchant for penguin documentaries nor even by the Manichean manoeuvring of geopolitics. The Antarctic and the UK are at the opposite ends of the planet, and yet our small chronically under funded nation manages to produce exceptionally high-quality scientific research on the one continent that can tell us what our collective future will look like on this planet.  And this value-for-money government is fixing to pull the plug. Why?