The HoC Science and Technology committee investigate BAS / NOC and NERC

[This is a post bringing together things I have done elsewhere whilst learning how to use this platform.]

I am a huge fan of the Natural Environment Research Council, and used to work for the British Antarctic Survey. It is a fact that in the UK at the moment the community has some very tough funding decisions to make.

NERC decided to investigate  saving money through a possible merger of the National Oceanography Centre and BAS.  It is fair to say that  this was not so well recieved.

Observer news story
The story in the Observer

The result was the The House of commons Science and Technology committee conducted a session to investigate the merger on 31 October 2012. I live tweeted the session and put together a storify with lots of background info. You can read that here:

 

The possible BAS / NOC merger

The British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre are two world leading research centres that are component institutes of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Currently due to NERC budget cuts from Central Government they have proposed to merge the two centres.

Storified by Mark Brandon· Thu, Nov 01 2012 01:38:30

Today (31 / 10 / 12) The House of commons Science and Technologycommittee conducted a session to investigate the merger. This is my attempt atlive tweeting the session, with a bit of background information where I seefit. I do, of course, have a personal view about whether the merger would be a"good thing" or "bad", and, as a polar scientist who has worked at both BAS and NOC, in a way I am conflicted. For that reason I try here to stick to facts. And from tweets I made at the time. Disclosure: I used to work for NERC as I was an employee of BAS and NOC, NERC funded my doctorate, I have received research grant funding from NERC and am currently a member of the NERC Peer Review College. All this is of course, my own personal view.

 

Where I have used quote marks they are I believe actual quotes - but remember I am not a journalist. When not quotes my impressions of what was said. If you want exact quotes I strongly suggest you use Hansard when published - or the recorded session link below.

 

Please bear in mind I am not a science policy person - so my interpretation may be naive. So First who are the science and technology committee?

Science and Technology Committee (Commons) - UK ParliamentWelcome to the Science and Technology Committee's website. The Committee scrutinises the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), whic...
From the WWW site "The Committee has a broad remit and can examine the activities of departments where they have implications for, or made use of, science, engineering, technology and research." It actually looks really interesting and the membership with bio's of members is here:
Science and Technology Committee - membership - UK ParliamentThe members of the Committee were appointed on 12 July 2010. Stephen McPartland MP was appointed on 14 February 2011, replacing Alok Shar...

The story (for me) really starts with an Article in the Observer a couple of weeks ago.

I have to say I found that a really depressing take on what was happening in UK polar science.
Cuts threat to UK Antarctic research on climate changeA row has broken out over the fate of one of the country's most distinguished scientific organisations, the British Antarctic Survey. The...
I didn't recognize some of the things in that article. It led to a petition and strong public interest in the outcome. Here is the NERC consultation document that was on the table about a possible merger.
NERC - Consultation on proposal to merge BAS and NOCPlease note, this consultation is now closed. Details of the proposal are contained in a consultation document that is available below. N...
A few days later the fact checking climate science blog Climate Brief came up with a rather more nuanced take on what was happening.
Counting the cost of Antarctic research: the British Antarctic Survey merger | Carbon BriefCounting the cost of Antarctic research: the British Antarctic Survey merger News that Britain's Antarctic research unit will be merged w...
This was followed a couple of days later by an article by David Shukman at the BBC which contained rather similar information. Rather than me rehash their arguments here, I recommend both articles as being worth a read.
Decision looms on future for British polar researchPress reports say the world famous British Antarctic Survey is doomed. A petition to save Britain's polar heritage does the rounds. Capta...
NERC were to take the results of their consultation to their Council next month, but this was brought forward to 1 November 2012 because they were concerned about the effect on staff morale of the continuing media pressure. An example was in the Independent last Sunday.
British Antarctic Survey saved as merger plan is scupperedControversial plans to merge two of Britain's most distinguished scientific institutions may be abandoned following a public outcry. Gove...
If you read that headline then you would get one impression of the outcome, but there are some very interesting passages where quotes are used and not used. e.g.
NERC said last night: “Council will be considering the case on the basis of its scientific benefits to UK marine and polar research excellence,” and that it was working on alternative options from the merger.
I recommend reading the last paragraph but one for a very interesting quote from Professor Klaus Dodds about the geopolitical implications. As a person who has written books on Britain in Antarctica, his comments are worth reading.

So onto the parliamentary committee session

If you follow the link then you can watch a recording.

This morning 0915 I will be watching the Science and Tech committee discuss the Natural Environment Research Council http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=11665Mark Brandon
@icey_mark I'm on train to Swansea, so will miss it. But will Duncan W be questioned over BAS/NOC? I look forward to twitter updates!AnsonMackay
@AnsonMackay That is exactly (apparently) what it is about. They have DW, Ed Hill, Ed Wallis (chair NERC) and Willets. I'm tempted tweet itMark Brandon
@icey_mark please do tweet if possible. Hashtag #nercselect?!AnsonMackay
@ed_hawkins I think I am going to try tweet from online broadcast using the tag #nercselect thanks to @AnsonMackay. Hope its satisfyingMark Brandon
Stephen Mosley is one of the members and he tweeted after the session
Sci + Tech Select Committee been looking at the future of the British Antarctic Survey this morning with the minister David WilletsStephen Mosley MP
It started at about 0920 with frustratingly no introductions, and no captions of who is speaking. Sure it is unreasonable to expect them to do that, but given that someone controls the cameras and sound I don't see how it would be a big overhead. What it means is I was guessing about who I thought was speaking from the committee.

First up was the Science Minister David Willetts. He has "two brains". Apparently.

Willets being questioned first "explain NERC decision being brought forward" referring to BAS and possible NOC merger #nercselectMark Brandon
Willets says NERC brought it forward to reduce uncertainty, and a matter for NERC council . But right for committee to ask #nercselectMark Brandon
After that Mr Stringer gave a bit of a history lesson on his idea of BAS funding. After the Falklands War BAS ended up with a new building in Cambridge, a new runway, a renewed base and ultimately a new ship. The RRS James Clark Ross.
MP Stringer http://bit.ly/UgqaIT refers to Thatcher helping BAS "[decision] can't be taken away from geopolitical issues" #nercselectMark Brandon
This is the first and early mention of geopolitics and not science. It is a key point that Klaus Dodds made in the Independent article above.
A couple of weeks ago there was a House of Lords discussion about Antarctic Science and the merger. (link in tweet below). Baroness Warsi gave a statement which said (amongst many things!)
I want specifically to reassure noble Lords that Ministers are absolutely committed to maintaining and developing a physical presence in Antarctica.
She also made it clear the government were involved in the decision. Mr Stringer investigated this:
Stringer questions Warsi's statement in House of Lords re government input into decision http://bit.ly/Ugqkjh Is that true? #nercselectMark Brandon
An interesting answer
Willets appears to say yes but no..... #nercselectMark Brandon
So government involved - but it is up to NERC. So all clear there.

Mr Stringer then went for the Haldane principle which is well explained - and its implications in the Carbon Brief and BBC articles above.

Stringer brings up Haldane principle. http://bit.ly/hYnr4x #nercselectMark Brandon
MP Metcalfe http://bit.ly/Ugqw2e talks about geopolitics and not onto science yet. WIllets says he trusts NERC council #nercselectMark Brandon
NERC Council for the uninitiated are a bunch of impressive people covering the whole NERC portfolio. Names and pen sketches are here
Willets "dissapointed" that NERC commitment to polar research has been questioned #nercselectMark Brandon
Now Willetts is saying it is up to NERC, and MP Metcalfe says:
Metcalfe asks "if you dont like the decision" how will you protect governments strategic aim. #nercselectMark Brandon
Willets says NERC understands government strategic aim #nercselectMark Brandon
Again a two sided answer. Where is it in the NERC remit to discuss geopolitical influence?
Willets makes clear no threat to UK presence in Antarctic but cant preempt next spending review. #nercselectMark Brandon

I think this next thing from Willetts is a key point

If BAS get an extra funding line that is independent then it could be clearly identified what is NERC science and what is government policy. Interesting thought. But they haven't done anything.

WIllets says "Antarctic science should have discrete funding line". But admits they havent done it yet or investigated #nercselectMark Brandon
Now MP Nash had a go at seeing where the savings can be made. Will they be from science staff from either BAS or NOC?
MP Nash http://bit.ly/UgqU0G can decisions here affect the scientists ? WIllets flannels and talks science peer review #nercselectMark Brandon
Nash clearly asks "is funding for scientists to shrink?" Willets talks of challenges to NERC. Talks of savings re logistics #nercselectMark Brandon
Willets makes clear peer review of NERC science is the most important thing of Antarctic science #nercselectMark Brandon
Nash asks where are savings? Will NOC be hamstrung? Willets says "operational question" and "ask nerc" #nercselectMark Brandon
At least Willetts is clear. Don't ask me. He was a guest of BAS and NERC last year and visited Rothera Research Station. But whilst going out of his way to complement the people and science. He pointed quite hard at tired buildings and equipment. The base has, I guess, in his opinion, been under invested in.
Willets has visited Antarctica as a guest of NERC and BAS last Antarctic season. He was impressed but "needs investment" #nercselectMark Brandon
I think Newton http://bit.ly/Ugrr2v "Will merger help investmentof tired buildings etc ?" WIllets says of course he cant say #nercselectMark Brandon
Willets talks about science capital funding and how planning is terribly difficult etc etc. But capital funding MP? #nercselectMark Brandon
Then the end of WIllets stuff got a bit messy.
Miller suggests that you could investigate the ozone whole away from antarctica. no idea where he is going with that #nercselectMark Brandon
@icey_mark nowhere sensible.Ian Brooks
@IanMBrooks quite a lot of rambling and flannel. Not much factual stuff yet. I do agree with his "devolve to scientists" takeMark Brandon
Miller gets onto the Name British Antarctic Survey and "geopolitical messages". Willetts agrees very much. "highly sensitive" #nercselectMark Brandon
Willetts says "our commitment to Antarctic unchanged" #nercselectMark Brandon
The next tweet is interesting given what Prof Duncan Wingham said later.
Miller asks odd series of questions to Willets about combing funding agencies but going nowhere. #nercselectMark Brandon
So the punchline with David Willetts. We trust NERC council. We want scientists to decide the priorities. We will not be retreating from Antarctica. Oh and by the way there is a clear urgent need for capital investment.

Now onto the next people. You know ones who know stuff. Some information hopefully.

Now Duncan Wingham (NERC), Edmund Wallis (NERC) and Ed Hill (NOC / BAS) take the desk #nercselectMark Brandon
if you want to see their bios then you can look here for Wingham and Wallis, and here for Hill.

It starts off interesting right away. Miller goes straight in, and Duncan Wingham  says something like hold on a minute, and introduces things. In the following tweets Wingham lays out a story rather like the Shukman / Carbon brief article. He is very clear in his delivery.

Miller "what is the key driver". Wingham "happy to talk to you" etc etc "2 drivers large scale complex N/S grand challenges" #nercselectMark Brandon
Wingham bring together resources to attack these grand challenges. "We are under cost pressure 11% at moment" #nercselectMark Brandon
Wingham because of Comp Spending review need to address. "must find cost saving but synergy is key" #nercselectMark Brandon
Miller pushes on costs and mentions NOC redundancy exercise. What are savings? Wingham talks of reducing admin overhead.Mark Brandon
(so a few months ago in March NOC had a significant staff reduction. Nature blogged about it.
UK National Oceanography Centre preps for significant staff cuts : Nature News BlogThe United Kingdom's national centre for ocean research is slashing the number of scientific staff as it struggles to cope with governmen...
Miller says what are the savings and ....
Wingham mentions instant savings of 500k per year. Millar asks about cutting science to make that DW says NO #nercselectMark Brandon
So savings will come from reduction of duplication of HR and shipping and other things, but not science cuts.
Miller mentions public outcry. current and former employees too. asks for comment. Wingham says NERC changed funding ~5 yrs ago #nercselectMark Brandon
Wingham is pointing here to when NERC went over to theme leaders and more directed science. This was under Prof Alan Thorpe's leadership and at that time Duncan Wingham was chair of NERC Science Innovation Strategy Board (SISB)
My feed has died on #nercselect so maybe time for a coffee. Just as we were getting to some facts as well. SigjMark Brandon
feed just back #nercselectMark Brandon
I am not sure if I missed anything but it appeared to be in the same place....
Wingham says looking to future and best organise for the future. NERC Council will sustain over this period #nercselectMark Brandon
(sustain in this context meant sustain Antarctic footprint and science at current levels)/
Wingham "surprised by volume of commentary" - #nercselectMark Brandon
Then it got a bit procedural:
Metcalfe http://bit.ly/Ugqw2e "what is point of consultation". Wingham "wanted to inform decision making process" #nercselectMark Brandon
Metcalfe "how much weight will you give to consultation". Wingham "key themes come through. can savings be made elsewhere #nercselectMark Brandon
Wingham - it will be summarized and fed to NERC Council. #nercselectMark Brandon

This next bit is very important

Obviously there was a bit more colour to the next bit but it was an interesting point.

Miller states "we feel you havent considered parliament" - Wingham. "I apologise for not making enough effort" #nercselectMark Brandon
Wingham - we missed a step by not talking to the committee. No attempt to bypass #nercselectMark Brandon
Wallis is the Chairman of NERC.
Edmund Wallis also apologising "missed step" #nercselectMark Brandon
Then Ed Hill took the answers for a bit. Hill's answers were very comprehensive, and so I may not have distilled key details within his explanations. This was coupled with some pretty unclear questioning so maybe if you want to really see where this was going you could look at the recording.
I think Newton http://bit.ly/Ugrr2v asks about NERC consult having mention of resources. #nercselectMark Brandon
Ed Hill (NOC) - it is appropriate for nerc to consider its impact in this area. #nercselectMark Brandon
Ed Hill (NOC) says a lot about risks to polar regions from environmental and geopolitics and that best science should inform #nercselectMark Brandon
Ed Hill (NOC) saying the phrase "best science" a lot. I wonder if he means peer review? #nercselectMark Brandon
Just heard the interim director of BAS mention the word 'geopolitics' in the House of Commons Science and Technology committee hearing...Klaus Dodds
Yup "geopolitics" it came up a lot.
Then they asked about the NERC Arctic Office - which is actually based in the British Antarctic Survey. This is real detail question so I was wondering where they were going.
Newton "people will be re-assured". asks about NERC arctic office funding and will it be maintained #nercselectMark Brandon
Hill says "a very specific point" "quite clear arctic is of increasing importance" #nercselectMark Brandon
For info NERC polar science strategy doc 2007 (PDF) is here http://bit.ly/Ugv3BJ #nercselectMark Brandon
Ed Hill "arctic science rather fragmented" talks of bringing it together, coherent framework etc etc. This is the doc I tweeted #nercselectMark Brandon
All a bit clunky and in the end Wingham closed off the line of questioning by saying:
Wingham says NERC will continue to fund arctic office this spending period #nercselectMark Brandon
I think Dowd now http://bit.ly/UgvpZ4 why dont they introduce themselves at the beginning? #nercselectMark Brandon
See I was corrected by Ed Hawkins - climate scientist from Reading who is on a pairing scheme with DECC.
@icey_mark Committee room is full to bursting in public area. Also 'Dowd' is Graham Stringer. #nercselect All rather interesting.Ed Hawkins
@ed_hawkins Cheers Ed. What an idiot I am. it is interesting isnt it. I think Ed Hill is very complicated in his comprehensive answers.Mark Brandon
Sorry about the Stringer / Dowd Confusion.
Stringer was sharp and asked some pretty good and direct questions.

This first one is picked up again later so I won't comment here.

Say Dowd - "how much scientists against merger". Wingham"scientists do not come through strongly [against merger]" non-trivial #nercselectMark Brandon
This was funny: From Klaus Dodds.
Duncan Wingham, Chief Executive, Natural Environment Research Council giving MPs a geography lesson on the polar regions #savebasKlaus Dodds
A very serious point though. I sat through an excruciating meeting once where a British Euro MP who I wont name was basically eviscerated by some Canadians who pointed out to her that, by her definition of the Arctic, then the EU would be able to have influence over Canadian territory.
Wingham makes point about grand challenges again. big scale ocean ice problems and "strong arguments" for merger #nercselectMark Brandon
Wingham makes point NERC Council is made up of very good people. http://bit.ly/UgvPP2 who will weigh evidence #nercselectMark Brandon
I wasn't the only person watching of course, and The Guardian tweeted this
Plan to merge British Antarctic Survey comes under fire http://gu.com/p/3bfae/tfGuardian Environment
Plan to merge British Antarctic Survey comes under fireOpponents of the plan say the merger with an oceanography centre would irreparably damage the Arctic research institution
It  is not a particularly useful article IMO.
Now the next bit by Stringer was sharp. I think he was trying to get to the bottom of who was currently in charge and why. Before the merger consultation came on line it is a fact that BAS lost some key members of staff through retirement and the loss of the director Professor Nick Owens. This was publicised in the Independent in April.
Exclusive: British polar research in crisisThe British scientific research body which discovered the hole in the ozone layer and whose work is now vital to understanding climate ch...
It was at this point that Ed Hill was appointed interim director of BAS whilst also being director of NOC.
It is an obvious question to ask about why wasn't a BAS scientist appointed interim director? So Stringer attempted to get to if Ed Hill was qualified to be director. It was a confusing dialogue for the same reasons as above. It is hard to give simple answers to complex questions.
Dowd - notes Ed Hill is apparently in charge of everything. "must be firm favourite to take over merged institution" #nercselectMark Brandon
Ed Hill says BAS interim leadership many BAS staff. Overall it is up to NERC council, and chief exec of nerc #nercselectMark Brandon
Ed Hill " I am a facilitator" "to advise and inform .... council" #nercselectMark Brandon
Dowd questions Ed Hills experience. This is easy for Hill to state and confirm. Cant suggest that Hill is not capable #nercselectMark Brandon
The committee are I guess are attempting to investigate if BAS is going to be subsumed. This is IMO unhelpful. Wingham jumps in. #nercselectMark Brandon
I guess they are also asking would no-one from BAS be able to take on that interim role #nercselectMark Brandon
This is a key point here. The Chief Exec of NERC is saying he doesn't like senior staff turnover.
Wingham says he is not happy with "senior staff turnover" Talking about previous BAS Director and leadership #nercselectMark Brandon
Dowd "how do you appoint nerc insitute directors". Wallis says advertised but basically the pool is very small #nercselectMark Brandon
There you go. A businessman Wallis, says it is harder to manage science than business.
Wallis says pool of scientist who can manage very small and it is tougher than for business. #nercselectMark Brandon
Now we get onto where Stringer was going. After Hill was appointed interim director there has been a redundancy round at BAS with notices sent out to staff on 24/10 / 12. I guess one could perceive that there was a conflict here......
Again it was tough to untangle in real time because Hill gave complex arguments, and at the same time whilst insisting that the redundancy notices are "complete  separate", he talked about savings in staff costs from the merger. I'll have to look at Hansard here.
Dowd talks about conflict of interest and that Ed Hill is conflicted in the process #nercselectMark Brandon
Dowd asks about BAS redundancy notices sent out 24/10 this year. Hill says "Completely separate to merger" #nercselectMark Brandon
Hill says savings separate from merger will be about £3 million in this comp spending review period #nercselectMark Brandon
Ed Hill says there will be a saving of 500k expected from senior staff number reduction in merger (if it goes ahead!) #nercselectMark Brandon
One of the obvious savings would be in merging the ships. NERC runs 2 ships through NOC, and 2 ships through BAS, as Carbon Brief said in the article I cited at the beginning.

Scientists we spoke to suggested this is perhaps an obvious placeto make cuts. For example, BAS and NOC currently runindividual shipping lines, each with two vessels - both hugeoperations that cost money and require a lot of manpower.

As the rising cost of marine gas oil places a heavy burden onresources, NERC says it has to consider ways to save money - andrunning a single fleet is one of them. It is also consideringincreasing the extent to which it shares vessels with otherresearch organisations.

So their questioning tried to test this.

I think Mosley now (con http://bit.ly/UgxKTC ) asks about savings from uniting ships. from BAS and NOC #nercselectMark Brandon
Ed Hill "perennial question - why 2x2?". talks a long time doesnt give a clear answer IMO. Talks of synergies and harmonization #nercselectMark Brandon
I got the impression from Ed Hill that previous reviews of NERC shipping came up with merging ships as an answer, but did nothing about it as clearly non-trivial.
Ed Hill re previous NERC ship reviews "do seem to be benefits .. hard to quantify .. in to do box" #nercselectMark Brandon
The former businessman jumped in and said.
NERC chair Wallis jumps in "a private sector CEO would [look at nerc ships] say ... put together in 3 months [for savings]" #nercselectMark Brandon
Now this is where we pick up from the last Willetts question. Can you save money through looking at bringing all the research councils together in some way. Wingham says they are talking.
Miller "must be ways of saving not predicated on merger". Wingham talks about bringing all research councils together #nercselectMark Brandon
Back to ships again.
Mosely again (http://bit.ly/UgxKTC) asking about ship management. Should they be in cambridge and not Southampton #nercselectMark Brandon
Ed Hill says it is "operational management" at NOC and not "strategic management". e.g "may lay vessels up in future" strategic #nercselectMark Brandon
Given this next tweet I wonder what will change?
No finger slip operational management at Cambridge - strategic management at NOC - sorry #nercselectMark Brandon
This conversation is a lot more useful than the House of Lords the other week http://bit.ly/Ugqkjh #nercselectMark Brandon
Now we get onto the winding up stuff. Back to geopolitics......
Nash (Lab http://bit.ly/UgqU0G) Have you talked to FCO. Wingham "yes and we will not alter ... historical presence etc" #nercselectMark Brandon

This is the key point though isn't it?

Wingham "the name British Antarctic Survey will be retained for all purposes [in antarctic science]" #nercselectMark Brandon
This next bit was about the relationship of NERC to other government departments.
Nash "have you or any NERC talked to FCO [re merger]". Wingham and Wallis "No". #nercselectMark Brandon
This is the key tweet - but it links into what Willetts said earlier.
Wingham We are a science Research Council and inappropriate to talk to FCO. we talk to science minister #nercselectMark Brandon
Wingham talks of geopolitical issues "much of wider commentary about how situation should evolve" #nercselectMark Brandon
And Duncan Wingham highlights what Willetts said earlier about BAS getting an independent funding line.
Wingham ponts to Willets earlier this morning talking about independent funding line for Antarctic Science #nercselectMark Brandon
Wingham makes point that geopolitical concerns should be discussed by ministers #nercselectMark Brandon
Wallis "[Wingham} made it clear no change in British Antarctic footprint so didnt talk to FCO" #nercselectMark Brandon
And the killer last question at the end....... By Stringer again. He would be clearly be interesting to be on a committee with.
Stringer (Lab http://bit.ly/UgqaIT) "I have not heard the authentic voice of the British Antarctic Survey .. is that fair" #nercselectMark Brandon
Yup Klaus Dodds picked up the same point.
Has the 'authentic voice' of BAS been heard? A final question from the House of Commons Science and Technology committee hearing.. #savebasKlaus Dodds
So we have lots and lots of media stories about how polar science is finished, petitions etc. Stringer wants to know what BAS thinks...
Duncan Wingham must have been relieved to get this.
Wingham "who is the authentic voice". "I have talked to BAS staff". #nercselectMark Brandon
He detailed many levels of BAS staff he had spoken too from scientists through to technical staff, admin, and logistics experts.
On the media reporting he said
Wingham "BAS staff view is not well represented by the press" ... "more nuanced". This is to do with geopolitical voice isnt it #nercselectMark Brandon

And the final killer point from NERC Chair Wallis

Wallis NERC makes it clear they may not take a decision tomorrow #nercselectMark Brandon
Miller "thanks for coming and going into private session" /ends #nercselectMark Brandon

And so we were left thinking what it meant.

Well #nercselect was interesting...not sure I'm that much the wiser for it.Ian Brooks
Having worked all through evidence session on the proposed BAS merger, recommend you look at #nercselect tweets for good updates #scipolicyXameerah Malik
I don't know Emma Leedham, but she expresses a view I have heard so much.
much as I love BAS there are lots of other scientists struggling for funding in the UK #nercselect. It's just BAS is sexy scienceEmma
Well BAS is sexy. but the geopolitics is critical too. And it is tough all over.

What is clear is there are strong views. e.g.

So, if BAS-NOC merger is to save £500k pa in finance & hr, why not merge all Reserch Centres admin? It's called SSC Ltd #farce #nercselectAdrian Kybett
British Antarctic Survey to be co-opted for benefit of oil companies http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/oct/31/merge-british-antarctic-surveyPhilip Challinor
And Nature wrote up the session here.
UK Antarctic research centre’s future hangs in the balance http://bit.ly/RqWOqeNature News&Comment
UK Antarctic research centre's future hangs in the balance : Nature News BlogBritish politicians have harshly criticised proposals to merge two world-leading research institutes, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) ...

By the evening the Science and Technology Committee had their answer.

Think again on British Antarctic Survey merger say Science and Technology Committee - News from Parliament - UK ParliamentThe Science and Technology Committee was not convinced that the Research Council had properly made a case for the merger in terms of scie...

The Science and Technology Committee was not convinced that the Research Council had properly made a case for the merger in terms of science or cost saving. The Committee also had concerns about the process of consultation and the apparent lack of concern about sensitive geo-political considerations surrounding the South Antarctic operations.

There is no doubt it has been a tough year for polar research in the UK.

Meanwhile the most fantastic research is being led and done by scientists at BAS and in the UK Universities

For example drilling subglacial Lake Ellsworth with BAS and Uni scientists.

homeSubglacial Lake Ellsworth, Antarctica's hidden world
Drill kit leaves UK for icy lakeA daring project to explore an ancient lake hidden beneath the Antarctic ice moves closer to reality this weekend. A huge load of essenti...
On Glaciology here
Antarctic GlaciersAntarctic glaciers are beautiful and awe-inspiring. They also affect us through their connections with the ocean and sea level, and envir...
And on vital marine work being done by British - mainly British Antarctic Survey Scientists with for example with CCAMLR (Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources)

Milestone discussions on marine protected areas in Antarctica scheduled for CCAMLR's 31st annual meetings in Hobart | CCAMLRMilestone discussions on marine protected areas in Antarctica scheduled for CCAMLR's 31st annual meetings in Hobart
Polar science has an important world leading future in the UK.

 

To me it is clear there were a few some strong supporters of a merger, but the people against were extremely vocal. That meant the in my view some of the issues were not addressed. Overall the reporting included the worst hyperbole and it's obvious to me that if anything like this is considered again, then the approach by the organisations is going to be quite different.

2 thoughts on “The HoC Science and Technology committee investigate BAS / NOC and NERC

  1. Jim

    I agree that the potential benefits of the merger have unfortunately been lost in the shouting. However, the fact remains that NERC did not present a sufficiently strong case: they argued that the driver was financial, yet when pressed on figures, the saving involved was only ~£0.5 million per year, across two institutions with a combined annual budget of >£70 million. And for that <1% cost saving, the "brand name" of BAS would be lost; in business, such a decision would be crazy.

    The criticisms of the Select Committee also focused on *how* NERC went about the process, as seen by comments in their report such as:

    "The decision to merge appeared to have been taken in advance of the consultation"

    "Serious concerns regarding whether NERC has the competence to take decisions that potentially have such geopolitically significant consequences"

    "questions about whether Professor Hill is the most appropriate person to run the consultation and merger"

    "NERC should ensure that future changes are conducted with better engagement with scientists, this Committee and other stakeholders"

    ...rather than the potential benefits or otherwise that a merger could provide. In particular, they pointed out that it could be considered a bit dodgy for NOC Director and then BAS Interim Director Ed Hill to be in charge of a consultation on the merger of NOC and BAS, given that such a merger would create a bigger job for himself. Now I don't doubt Prof Hill's integrity, but you can see the point that the Select Committee were raising, given outcry about standards in public life elsewhere. At best, the process followed was indeed naive.

    NERC has to accept its own failure in how it approached and ran the process, and hopefully learn from it. Scientists always moan about Research Councils (a population stereotypic response to occasional rejection of grant proposals!), but trust among the scientific community that NERC serves has been eroded by this, and NERC must work to rebuild that trust.

    Reply
    1. London_MarcusB

      Excellent and well considered comment. Thanks for taking the time.

      I am nodding vigorously a lot at what you say. I would make a couple of comments: I am sure they said the BAS brand would not go (I am sure that’s in the consult document, as well as stated in the committee), also whilst savings now are so small as to be in the noise, in five years’ time would that be the case?

      Finally, there are scientists in the community who agreed with a merger. They were (generally) quiet in the process.

      Also totally agree about NERC. We are NERC and we are the science community. NERC has learned already. It’s a shame it was such a public way to learn though.

      Reply

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