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UK Government Cuts to Science Funding Threaten the British Antarctic Survey

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Major cuts in the amount of funding that the Coalition Government is investing in the UK's world class science base are beginning to cause real damage, with the threatened end to one of our most important research institutions, the British Antarctic Survey.

The Survey has been responsible for the discovery of the ozone hole and many other breakthroughs, and is at the forefront of efforts to understand how climate change is affecting the land-based ice sheets in Antarctica which could cause large rises in global sea level if they melt and become unstable.

But the government's Natural Environment Research Council, which funds the Survey, has been told by Science Minister, David Willetts, to reduce its annual expenditure by more than 10 per cent in cash terms by 2015, and to slash its capital spending by 45% from £32.2 million in 2011-12 to just £17.8 million for each of the next three years.

The massive drop in funding for environmental research is part of the Government's plan to reduce annual public investment in science by 14% in real terms over the period of the Spending Review, which was carried out in 2010.

According to the Research Council, the annual budget for the British Antarctic Survey, which covers the operation and maintenance of its facilities and ships as well as its research activities, has been frozen since last year at £42 million. Taking inflation into account, this means the Survey's funding is due to be cut by about 9% in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15.

As part of its cost-cutting programme, the Research Council has started a consultation, due to close on 10 October, about merging the Survey in Cambridge with the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton.

The Council's consultation document admits that one of the reasons for the merger is "recognition of the increasing costs of providing marine and polar infrastructure and of the need to plan and deliver this in the most cost-effective way, particularly at a time of downward pressure on public finances".

The mission of the newly created 'Centre for Marine and Polar Science', which would be based in Southampton, will be to carry out marine and polar research "for the advancement of knowledge of the Earth system for the benefit of human well-being, the national interest and the UK economy".

This narrowly defined aim does not mention the environment or ecosystems, and shows the current Government's apparent disregard for the broad benefits of curiosity-driven research that have been realised through the achievements of the British Antarctic Survey.

The Survey was officially born in 1962 through the renaming of the Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey. Among the research stations inherited by the Survey was the Halley Base on the Weddell Sea which had been monitoring the atmosphere over West Antarctica since its establishment by the Royal Society during the International Geophysical Year in 1957-58.

In 1985, Joseph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin from the Survey published a landmark paper in the scientific journal Nature, announcing that continuous measurements at the Halley Base had recorded that the minimum amount of ozone present in the stratosphere in spring had declined sharply since the late 1970s.

This dramatic finding confirmed theories put forward in 1975 by Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina and Frank Sherwood Rowland that chlorofluorocarbons from aerosol sprays and other sources were causing the destruction of the ozone layer and exposing the Earth to more ultra-violet radiation. The United Nations subsequently created the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to phase out the use of the main ozone-depleting gases, and Crutzen, Molina and Rowland were awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

But ironically the Survey's scientists might never have found the ozone hole because funding cuts imposed by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government a few years earlier meant that its activities were due to be scaled down.

In an article in Nature in 2010 to mark the 25th anniversary of the discovery, Jonathan Shanklin wrote: "In the early 1980s, the BAS was looking at ways to economize, and the ozone monitoring at Halley was in the frame to be cut; nothing seemed to be changing, and there seemed little reason to keep it going."

But following the Falklands war in 1982, the Government increased the Survey's budget after recognising the strategic importance, if not the scientific value, of its bases on South Georgia and elsewhere.

According to Shanklin, the vital role played by the Halley Base shows that "we should invest in long-term monitoring, even when it seems to yield no immediate insights or benefits".

However, such basic research, which is driven by the quest for new knowledge rather than an immediately identifiable application, is again under threat as part of the Coalition Government's programme to reduce its investment in science.

New figures published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development this summer show that UK spending on research and development dropped to just 1.76 per cent of our gross domestic product in 2010, well below the European Union average and, for the first time ever, less than China.

The UK's science base is one of the most important drivers of economic growth. If the government wants to ensure the future prosperity and well-being of the UK, it needs to invest more, not less, in our world class researchers and scientific organisations like the British Antarctic Survey.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.