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Ship shape. Artist's rendition of the United Kingdom's planned polar research ship.

Ship shape. Artist's rendition of the United Kingdom's planned polar research ship.

British Antarctic Survey

Britain to Build $340 Million Polar Research Ship

In another headline-grabbing announcement of new research infrastructure spending, U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced today that Britain would build a new £200 million ($340 million) polar research ship by 2019. The new ship, as yet unnamed, will allow researchers to travel deeper into the Arctic and Antarctic, deploy robotic submarines and underwater gliders, and have extensive onboard laboratories. It will also service bases in the British Antarctic Territory.

“Our new £200 million polar flagship will be the most advanced oceanographic research vessel in the world. It will be carrying the latest cutting edge technologies. And will mean scientists can do research for more of the year, can reach areas they’ve never been able to penetrate before, and will be able to bring back huge amounts of data on the ocean and marine biology,” Osborne said during a speech in Cambridge.

This is “an exciting time for UK polar science and I am delighted with this announcement,” Jane Francis, director of the British Antarctic Survey, said in a statement. “The last 15-20 years has seen remarkable developments in science and technology. Incorporating these new technologies in a new ice-strengthened research ship will offer a step-change in Britain’s capability to deliver bigger and better science.”

This is one of several new projects announced since last autumn when Osborne boosted annual spending on capital projects for research by £500 million to £1.1 billion for 2015 to 2016 and said budgets will then grow in line with inflation until 2020 to 2021. The government originally slashed capital expenditures by 40% in the first spending review following its election in 2010. But since then Osborne has lobbed in several one-off bundles of new money followed by last December’s more permanent hike.

To identify priorities for this spending, Osborne today also announced a consultation that will produce a science capital road map by autumn. “We have some tough and exciting decisions to make over the coming months—and I’m relying on the help of you in this room and the rest of the scientific community to make sure we get it right,” Osborne told his audience.

Despite the improving situation for capital spending, the overall science budget, which covers grants, journal subscriptions, and overhead costs, has remained nearly flat since 2010. Inflation has eroded the value of that £5.9 billion budget by more than £1.1 billion over the 5-year spending review period, according to the Campaign for Science and Engineering. Overall, the United Kingdom’s research spending—at 1.72% of the gross domestic product—lags behind most of its competitors in the G8 and is below the average of the 28 European Union nations. “New investments welcome but gear shift needed to win global race,” the campaign said last month.