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October 31, 2012

NGOs accuse NERC of 'unlawful' action over Antarctic plans

Greenpeace is leading a group of four non-governmental organisations in an attack on the Natural Environment Research Council, warning that its consultation on merging the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre was “unlawful”.

The group, which includes Friends of the Earth, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and WWF-UK, has written to Duncan Wingham, NERC’s chief executive, expressing “grave concerns” that the council “failed to comply with the basic legal requirements of a fair and adequate consultation” when putting forward its proposal on the merger.

According to the NGOs, NERC failed to allow enough time for responses and appeared to present the merger as a foregone conclusion in the consultation, which closed on 10 October. Having sought legal advice, they argue that a four-week consultation was “plainly inadequate” and that the council should have given respondents 12 weeks to share their views.

“As a result, the consultation was unlawful and would fall to be quashed on a claim for Judicial Review,” it reads. “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.”

Speaking to Research Fortnight, Vicky Wyatt, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace said the group would “take further legal advice” if the merger goes ahead, depending on the basis for the decision.

More than 350 responses are thought to have been submitted to NERC in response to the consultation. Those to vocally oppose the move include Nick Owens, the former director of BAS, Mike Richardson, former head of the Foreign Office’s Polar Regions Unit, and the Environmental Audit Committee.

The letter comes at a crucial time since NERC is due to make a decision on the merger on 1 November. It was originally due to reach a conclusion in December but brought forward the process following concerns that the uncertainty surrounding the situation was having a “damaging effect on staff morale” at both BAS and NOC.

The NGOs argue that moving the decision date forward doesn’t leave enough time to properly consider the hundreds of responses sent in to the consultation.

NERC declined to comment on the letter, saying that Wingham could not be reached for a response.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is to question Wingham and his colleagues on the merger on 31 October.

“I hope he turns up with some proper reasons and solid rationale as to why this is a good idea—it doesn’t seem to stack up,” says Wyatt.

Science minister David Willetts is also due to give evidence at the specially scheduled session. The MPs were forced to bring this meeting forward after NERC’s announcement that the decision would be made this week.

Further concerns expressed by the letter’s signatories include the effects a merger would have on the international reputation of BAS and potential conflicts with the Antarctic Treaty of 1991. They claim NERC’s referral to the polar regions as “frontier environments” in the consultation document goes against the Treaty’s description of Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. A merger would undermine BAS’ influence and weaken its ability to provide scientific and policy advice to, among others, the Foreign Office, they add.

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