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UK plan to merge Antarctic, ocean research stirs science row

LONDON (Reuters) - A British government plan to merge its Antarctic research division with a centre studying the oceans has triggered protests from scientists who said it would cut studies of polar climate change and rising sea levels.

They said the British Antarctic Survey had a strong history of discovery including, in 1985, of a hole in the ozone layer that protects the planet from harmful solar rays. That helped spur a 1987 United Nations treaty on damaging chemicals.

"We should be increasing our research in Antarctica, not cutting back," said Bob Ward, policy director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment at the London School of Economics.

"In times of recession, it does not pay to be less knowledgeable," he told Reuters. Antarctica, which holds enough water to raise world sea levels 60 meters if it all melted, should be a higher priority for research, he said.

The government, facing deep spending cuts, announced a proposal in June to merge BAS with the National Oceanography Centre into a new group, the Centre for Ocean and Polar Science. A final decision is due in December.

Professor Duncan Wingham, head of the Natural Environment Research Council, said there would be some cuts among BAS's 400 employees. BAS's funding had been kept up, shielded from deeper cuts in NERC's budget, he said.

NO CLOSURE

"Far from seeking to damage polar science, we are continuing to sustain our polar activity in spite of the difficult times we find ourselves in," Wingham said. "There are no plans to close BAS."

annual funding for BAS, based in Cambridge, is about 37 million pounds ($60 million). The new centre would be in Southampton, where the National Oceanography Centre is based.

Wingham said the plan for the merger was "to provide a single institute that can take on the largest challenges of polar science, north and south". It would also allow the two groups to share the cost of ships.

British spending on research and development fell to 1.78 percent of gross domestic product in 2010 from 1.84 percent in 2009, official data showed.

A scientist at BAS said there was still time to overturn the proposal, noting the final decision was still two months off.

BAS said it had no formal position on the merger.

($1 = 0.6193 pound)

(Reporting By Alister Doyle; Editing by Dan Lalor)

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