Science Minister David Willetts has ordered plans to wind down the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to be shelved following a storm of protest.
The proposed merger between the world-renowned centre for polar research and the UK's National Oceanography Centre provoked fierce criticism and strong opposition from politicians, scientists and campaign groups.
Reversing its original decision to wind down BAS, the Natural Environment Research Centre (NERC) today said the Government had provided a “discrete funding line” of £42 million to secure the future of the Antarctic science mission.
In a statement to Parliament today, Minister Willetts explained it was vital for the UK to maintain a presence at the South Pole and issued an assurance he was committed to the ongoing work of the BAS.
He added: "The Council of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) met on 1 November to discuss the proposed merger of the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre. NERC Council considered the responses to its public consultation as well as feedback from Parliament, Government, the polar affairs community, scientists and NERC staff.
“NERC's handling of the responses was subject to external independent scrutiny by Professor Robert Allison, Vice Chancellor and President of Loughborough University.
“The British Antarctic Survey is a national and international asset that delivers world-class environmental science, and this country's strategic presence in Antarctica and the South Atlantic. The UK's commitment to continuing this dual mission in the region is as strong as ever.
“NERC has already committed to maintain the funding of the British Antarctic Survey at £42m a year for the rest of this spending review period.
“Looking to the future - though without pre-empting the timing and size of the next spending review settlement - I consider that NERC should have a discrete funding line for Antarctic infrastructure and logistics from within the ring-fenced science budget to ensure a visible UK commitment to maintaining Antarctic science and presence.
“Having completed its consultation, NERC Council agreed that it will not proceed with the proposal for merger. The British Antarctic Survey and National Oceanography Centre will remain as NERC's centres."
Welcoming the u-turn, Friends of the Earth Head of Campaigns Andrew Pendleton, said: "The devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy underlines the critical importance of the British Antarctic Survey's work to further our understanding of climate change. It is essential that we have the best possible scientific understanding of the effects of climate change on our environment.
"The decision not to go ahead with the merger is a reflection of the BAS's position as a world renowned centre of scientific research - but NERC still has questions to answer about why and how this merger was proposed in the first place.
"Thankfully MPs and Ministers from all parties have quite rightly stepped in to put the brakes on this ill-conceived merger - David Willetts' indication of ring-fencing future BAS funding is a welcome move."
And Vicky Wyatt, Greenpeace Arctic campaigner, added: “The British Antarctic Survey is a wonderful institution. It is rightly world renowned and has done great work in helping us protect one of the most fragile and beautiful areas on the planet.
“The decision to abandon plans to dismantle it acknowledges the critical role that British science does and can play in protecting the polar regions. Right now, with the Arctic summer sea-ice melting at a record rate, and growing uncertainty over the effect of climate change on the Antarctic, we need Britain’s scientists more than ever.”