Boots on the snow

Parry Mitchell 4x3Lord Parry Mitchell is a member of Labour’s BIS team in the Lords

I don’t know whether it is possible to go native in a land without natives, but it certainly happened to me. In 2004, as part of the Lords Science and Technology Committee I visited the British base in Antarctica. I fell in love with the place.

No Briton can be indifferent to the exploits of our great explorers who went to the polar-regions a hundred years ago. Captain Scott’s mission to be the first man to reach the South Pole has captivated us ever since. Similarly we remain enthralled by the heroic exploits of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Polar exploration still fills us with awe.

While both missions failed in their principal objective, they nevertheless captured the very essence of our nation – gritty determination, overcoming all the odds and above all never giving up.  

Three aspects need addressing: the science, the base itself and the geopolitical aspects. But I cannot start without addressing the proposed merger of the the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and Southampton-based National Oceanographic Centre (NOC).

Management by Excel spreadsheet is a process beloved of accountants, but it is one which studiously avoids goodwill; what those accountants call soft assets.  Any creative person will tell you that once the suits get involved the very heart goes out of the project.

BAS is a national treasure in a way that neither NOC nor the Natural Environment Research Council are. It carries on the spirit of Scott and Shackleton. To subsume BAS, to gut it, to leave it out unloved on some organizational limb, would be an act of supreme folly. Only the spreadsheets could come to that conclusion.

Our planet is under threat primarily from global warming.  We know it to be so, but there are many powerful and influential people who refute the fact that global warming is manmade. They are not just the evangelicals in the US, or the mega-energy companies; we even have some of them in the Lords. And the only way we can refute them is by science-based evidence.

BAS is at the very vanguard of global scientific research. It also has a history of alerting the world to such dangers, including the discovery of the Ozone layer and it’s the impact on the environment of its depletion. Can we seriously contemplate downgrading this influential institution by merging it into irrelevance? 

Because Antarctica is so remote and dangerous, the people working there are a special breed: scientists of course, but also the full complement of support staff. With only one or two ship visits a year the base has to be self sufficient, including doctors, plumbers, pilots and cooks. But what struck me most is that that they are all part of an interdisciplinary scientific family.  Support staff assist the scientists. Scientists wash the dishes.  Everyone pitches in.

While this base brings out the best of people, that doesn’t happen by chance. It happens through excellent management and charismatic leadership.  At least that was the situation when we were there. From what I’ve heard recently, this is no longer the case. 

The bases in Antarctica are located in a part of the world which is very sensitive to our national interest. The Falklands and the southern islands are still in play as they were in 1982. Oil and fish are resources prized by other nations and it is not surprising that the politicians in Buenos Aires are watching our every move.

As Einstein said, doing the same thing over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. We are on the verge of doing just that. Taking an insane decision by ineptitude that could cause us much pain. Any downgrade of the BAS bases on the Peninsular will be interpreted as weakness just as it was in 1982 when we reduced our naval support in South Georgia.

David Cameron and other members of the National Security Council gave a very clear directive that BAS was not to be downgraded in any way. But from what I hear, this directive is being ignored. BAS is a national treasure, not just doing vital work to protect the planet but an outpost representing our commitment to the South Atlantic. 

Published 18th October 2012

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