Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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A Merger Denied

I’m pleased, and not a little surprised, to read that the planned merger of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton has been called off. The BAS has a proud tradition and an excellent science driven record including, among many other things, the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole, which eventually led to the Montreal accords, generally recognised as the single most effective international environmental treaty to date. Would that we could have something similar on carbon dioxide production.

The idea that the BAS could retain its science-led tradition when moved to new premises and management, and when given an explicit instruction to help oil firms wishing to drill in polar regions is clearly nonsense, and the ensuing protests about the merger from scientific, environmental and political directions have clearly helped save them.

Even the name ‘British Antarctic Survey’ has a romantic ring to it. It brings visions of the heroic days of Scott and Shackleton, when the UK was a world leader in the exploration of the unknown. Work like the discovery of the ozone hole, and BAS’s current efforts to drill into lakes buried for millions of years beneath the surface of the ice, demonstrate that it is still, to quote Al Gore, ‘a globally significant institution’.

Needless to say there will still be battles, and while this one may have been won, there must still be questions over BAS’s long term future and independence, since it is clear that some people at NERC and elsewhere don’t think it should have one.

It’s good to see that science and scientific independence can beat political and financial expediency at least sometimes, but it is a bittersweet reminder to those of us in astronomy and particle physics who recall the shotgun wedding of our research council, PPARC, and the CCLRC (Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils) that formed STFC. This was a wheeze dreamt up by Gordon Brown, then Chancellor and soon-to-be Prime Minister, for reasons that nobody on the science side of PPARC has ever fully understood.

Unlike the BAS, PPARC didn’t have a political and environmentalist hinterland of support to defend it against this merger, though, since the idea originated from the top, that would have been unlikely to change things. The rest, as they say is history. There are conspiracy theories, incompetency theories, and the general financial doom of the times to explain it (Paul Crowther maintains an excellent record of all the comings and goings to this day), but the end result is that UK astronomy is now much less well funded than it was before the merger (the exact amount is subject to dispute discussion), and we are closing many of the uniquely British facilities that gave us an independent role in the field.

At this point I am unaware of any university astronomer who thinks the STFC merger was a good idea. If there are any, please speak up! I’d also be interested to hear from the particle physics side.

Sadly, unlike scientists, politicians and managers find it difficult to admit to being wrong, so it is unlikely that the clock will be turned back to allow astronomy and particle physics a resumed independent existence, separated from the very different resource demands of the likes of ISIS, DIAMOND, RAL and Daresbury. We’re still riding high in scientific terms, thanks to the long term technical and intellectual investments of the PPARC and, before that, SERC eras, but I can’t help but feel that the future will be one of managed decline, to being just one of the general European herd, and arguably one of the few without independent facilities of its own.

I’m glad, though a little envious, that BAS has yet to share a similar fate.