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Letter from RSPB, Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth about proposed merger between the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre

Last modified: 31 October 2012

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Dear Mr Wigham
We write on behalf of Greenpeace, the RSPB, WWF-UK and Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) in relation to NERC’s recent consultation on the proposed merger
between the British Antarctic Survey (“BAS”) and the National Oceanography Centre (“NOC”) (“the proposed merger”).

The purpose of this letter is to place on record our strong opposition to the proposed merger and our grave concerns as to the adequacy of the recent consultation exercise.

The proposed merger
We believe that the proposed merger would be a grave mistake. In summary, it would destroy a respected, distinctive and world class operation that makes a vital contribution to British and
environmental interests in the Antarctic region. It would lead to a loss of morale among staff and could result in the departure of a significant number of world-leading scientists. It would compromise the UK’s international reputation for scientific excellence, undermine its ability to exert influence in respect of the Antarctic, and weaken its position in the region. On a practical level, it would make the governance process for polar science more complex and lead to a loss of operational efficiency.

Moreover, the case for the proposed merger has simply not been made. In particular, no analysis or evidence has been provided by NERC to support its view that there is a “strong strategic case” for the merger. Nor has NERC explained why, in its view, the various aims and objectives that it refers to could not be achieved just as effectively, if not more effectively, through alternative means.

In the remainder of this section, we refer to a number of the specific ways in which the proposed merger could harm British interests and the environment. These examples are nonexhaustive
and we would welcome the opportunity to explain our concerns in greater detail.

• There is no case made that the proposed merger would save costs. The implication is that the major cost savings would be achieved through vessel operation. However, the Marine Science Co-ordination Committee (MSCC) report on “UK Marine Research Vessels - An assessment and proposals for improved co-ordination”,” has clearly stated that there would be few cost savings to be made unless the number of vessels were reduced, an action that would have a negative impact on delivery of work programmes.

• We are very strongly concerned by the language in the proposed merger consultation, specifically the description of polar regions as “frontier environments” for development (paragraphs 1 and 18). This is not in harmony with the Antarctic Treaty (Article 2, Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, 1991), in which “The Parties commit themselves to the
comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems and hereby designate Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”.

• The proposed mission has a focus on the national interest and the UK economy (paragraph 12). This is a major departure from the existing mission of BAS (“world-leading centre for polar research and expertise, addressing issues of global importance"). We believe this would seriously compromise the UK’s international reputation for scientific excellence, undermine its ability to exert influence in respect of the Antarctic, and weaken its position in the region.

• BAS also provides vital scientific and policy advice to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in relation to the UK’s membership of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (“CCAMLR”) - a body established by international convention in 1982 with the objective of conserving Antarctic marine life - and to the Antarctic Treaty including its Committee for Environmental Protection. We believe that the loss of BAS would weaken the UK’s participation in the CCAMLR’s work and Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM.)

• BAS is recognised worldwide as a world –leading scientific institution dedicated to the polar regions, including the area governed by the Antarctic Treaty System (“ATS”) (a region largely declared as a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science”). We believe that merging BAS with NOC would signal clearly that the UK’s special commitment to the Antarctic region and the Treaty System had weakened. On the other hand, if there is a genuine desire to support UK leadership and participation in the ATS (as suggested in paragraph 13 of the
consultation document), there can be no better way of delivering that objective than through maintaining a distinct and dedicated Antarctic research institution.

• We believe that there has already been a significant loss of morale among staff at BAS as a result of the proposals. If the merger went ahead, it would lead to a further loss of morale and potentially the departure of a number of high class scientists. These consequences would be very difficult to reverse.

• A merged and decentralised organisation might dilute the focus on both marine and polar sciences and/or place an undue emphasis on marine sciences to the detriment to BAS’ current research activities.

• A large decentralised organisation might jeopardise the ability to conduct complex and dangerous Antarctic operations as safely as possible. For example, ensuring the safety of operations in a high-risk environment is best achieved by having clear lines of management accountability. This is something which the current BAS management structure has, but which would be lacking in a
combined organisation.

• BAS (and to a lesser extent the NOC) is an internationally recognised mark of excellence. The brand helps attract the best international scientists; provides a recognised symbol of British excellence in scientific research, thereby strengthening the UK’s position in international negotiations on issues such as climate change; is instrumental to effectively communicating climate and wider polar science; and forms a vital part of the cultural identity of the organisation and of the staff who work there. All of this would be lost as a result of the proposed merger.

• Scientists from complementary disciplines tend to seek out and collaborate amongst each other without merging into one organisation. In short, there are no grounds for the merger in order to improve coordination and collaboration.

The consultation exercise
There are numerous compelling reasons as to why the proposed merger should not take place.
At present, we have no confidence that these reasons have been properly considered by NERC.
The recent consultation exercise was, in our view, hopelessly flawed. Indeed we are advised
that it failed to comply with the basic legal requirements of a fair and adequate consultation.
For example:

• The consultation was not undertaken at a time when the proposals were still at a formative stage. It is clear from the consultation document, and from NERC’s public statements, that there had been a pre-determination in favour of the merger and that the option of not proceeding with the merger – an option of central significance – had already been excluded from further consideration
when the consultation document was published.

• The consultation document omitted any analysis or evidence – whether scientific, economic or otherwise – in support of NERC’s view that there was a “strong strategic case” for the merger. It also focused exclusively on the options for implementing the proposed merger, excluding the no-merger option altogether. It thereby deprived consultees of any adequate opportunity to
consider, and make effective representations on, the costs and benefits of proceeding with the merger as against alternative options (including the nomerger option.)

• The consultation failed to provide consultees with adequate time to consider and respond to NERC’s proposals. A four week consultation period was plainly inadequate. In view of the nature and complexity of this consultation 12 weeks is appropriate.

• The announcement subsequently made by NERC to come to a decision on 1st November does not allow time for consideration of the 350+ responses made to the consultation exercise.

As a result, the consultation was unlawful and would fall to be quashed on a claim for Judicial Review. Any formal decision to proceed with the proposed merger that was premised on the
flawed consultation would also be unlawful and would similarly fall to be quashed. We are also concerned that the proposed merger does not appear to have been properly considered by Ministers. BAS has been the vehicle through which the UK has advanced the case for science-based conservation in Antarctica, including through the UK’s participation at ATCM
and CCAMLR. BAS has also played a major role in the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (“SCAR”), the body through which scientific advice is provided to the ATS. Given BAS’s
central role in advancing and assisting the UK’s participation in these international environmental initiatives, it is crucial that Government Ministers (including at least Ministers
from the FCO, DEFRA and BIS) be invited to consider NERC’s proposals. Indeed the Management Statement agreed in July 2005 between the (then) DTI’s Office of Science and Technology
(“OST”) and NERC envisaged NERC consulting the Department on certain matters, including contentious or politically sensitive matters, of which this is clearly one. It is not at all clear that
Ministers or departmental officials have been properly consulted on NERC’s proposals.

Conclusion
For all of the reasons given above, we urge NERC to abandon the proposed merger of BAS and NOC. If, having reflected on matters, NERC still believes that there is a pressing need to deliver
improvements in the way in which BAS conducts its environmental research activities, NERC should conduct a fair and adequate public consultation on the full range of options for achieving
those aims with the necessary evidence and analysis for those options.

Yours sincerely,

Tim Stowe, Director International RSPB

John Sauven, Executive Director Greenpeace UK

Craig Bennett, Director of Policy and Campaigns, Friends of the Earth 

Rod Downie, UK Senior Marine Policy and Programme Officer – Polar, WWF-UK 

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