Polar shambles

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Polar shambles

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.Scientific research in the Antarctic Peninsula is about more than science. It's about geopolitics

Anyone listening to the House of Lords debate last week on “Antarctica: Centenary of Scott Expedition” was in for an unexpected treat. Rather than offering up a succession of rousing assessments of Captain Scott’s exploits, it offered a tantalising insight into something that has caused considerable excitement: the proposed merger of British Antarctic Survey (BAS) with the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). For the critics, not only was the merger evidence of the world-class BAS “brand” being dropped but also indicative of polar science funding being degraded. Antarctica continues to warm, the ice sheet continues to melt and the polar oceans are increasingly exploited. Was this not the time to increase funding to BAS and strengthen its scientific resolve rather than merge and/or submerge?

The National Environment Research Council (NERC) attempted to make the case for a merger. No business case was offered. Rather it seemed that the motive was primarily cost-cutting, on the basis of promising research and logistical benefits. The source of the dispute over the future of BAS is not, I believe, about cutting costs per se. Rather it is rooted in an institutional unhappiness that the BAS has enjoyed a special status within the research community. Its funding has been ring-fenced (protected therefore from other demands on the scientific purse) and, since 1982, it has been increasingly recognised as performing a special role.

What role? In two words: polar geopolitics. BAS, as the name of the organisation suggests, operates in Antarctica and the South Atlantic. Its primary research bases are in the Antarctic Peninsula. This huge area makes up British Antarctic Territory (BAT). Unfortunately for British administrators, Argentina and Chile claim virtually the same territory as integral to their own nation-states. Since 1945, Britain has partly protected its sovereignty in the region through science. British organisations have mapped and surveyed this highly contested area, producing increasingly high quality polar science. In other words, we believed that “scientific sovereignty” was our insurance policy against the collapse of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.

The treaty signatories including the United States, Russia, China, Brazil and India all agree to respect the current territorial status quo in Antarctica. Britain is one of seven claimant states and the others include European and Commonwealth allies such as Australia and Norway. While Argentina and Chile represent an ongoing geopolititical headache, the real worry is that the “big powers” will press their own claims in the future. The US and Russia have always reserved the right to do so, and Brazil, China and India and others continue to build their polar presence through scientific bases, expeditions, and logistical support. Resource exploitation and commercial development, namely fishing and tourism, are also other mechanisms for registering one’s geopolitical footprint and this attracts claimant and non-claimants alike. The geopolitical map of Antarctica could change and for now, given the UK’s limited resource base and geographical constraints, BAS’s scientific stations were regarded as the most effective indicator of occupation of BAT.

The Falklands conflict in 1982 forced policy-makers, including Prime Minister Thatcher, to give this part of the world dedicated attention. Funding for BAS increased and later in 2001 a new base was opened in South Georgia when it was decided that the Royal Marine detachment could be removed. Since that point Anglo-Argentine relations have deteriorated. The current Argentine government is extremely hostile to UK interests in the region. NERC in its consultation document does not confront the complex realities of polar geopolitics. Perhaps it should not be expected as a research council.

But it is naive in the extreme to think that the highly contested Antarctic can be divorced from science and logistics. Everything that occurs on the Antarctic is saturated with geopolitical significance. If territorial sovereignty is unsettled then any evidence of human activity can be used to inform particular narratives and strategies about control, occupation and usage. If BAS’s role and reach, after any kind of merger, was diminished then this would be picked up rapidly in Argentina and Chile as evidence of the UK’s declining interest. And perhaps noted with interest by those who retain a very public right to make a claim in the future (US and Russia) and those who might do but have not said so explicitly.

This proposed merger is misguided and badly judged because it has not confronted polar geopolitics. Even the supporters of BAS seem reluctant to talk about the subject. Perhaps they think that this would finally confirm what every Argentine and Chilean knows—the UK uses science as its agent of sovereignty and hopes that science offers sufficient “soft power” to retain influence among larger and better resourced states. By the end of that House of Lords debate, I thought the future of NERC rather than BAS was in doubt, as peer after peer lined up to critique the proposed merger. We need to talk. And we need to talk about polar geopolitics.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author The Antarctic: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2012) 

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