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Surveys' wondrous cross

Sir Henry T de la Beche - smooth operator. From the Society's portrait collection.

Geological surveys have to change to survive; but how fast, and how far? Will some changes now in prospect threaten the very nature of geological surveys?

Geoscientist 18.12 December 2008

It is one of the legends of geology in Britain that Sir Henry Thomas de la Beche, who would become the founding Director of the British Geological Survey, once gave perhaps the cleverest answer to any commission of inquiry. The subject, under review by the Lords of the Treasury, was whether the United Kingdom should establish a geological survey; and if so what it should do, to what end, at what cost and for how long?

In reply to the last question, namely how long it might take to complete a geological survey of the British Isles, de la Beche is reputed to have replied that it would take no more than 10 years longer than the topographic survey. The cleverness of this remark is obvious to those who know that a topographic survey is never finished. Evidently the Lords of the Treasury did not, and good king de la Beche obtained his funding and a secure job - and the British survey became the earliest established (under the name of “survey”) in the world.

However by implication this clever answer had a side-effect – it implanted in many minds the inherent notion that the geological survey’s job, of mapping the sovereign’s rocks, is a labour without without end, destined to take a decade longer than infinity.

The geological surveys of the world were set up to service the needs of rapidly industrialising nations, to fuel and service the needs of industry and inform the construction of giant new civil engineering projects whose footings invaded the geosphere like never before. Their purpose as state-funded institutions was clearly grounded in economic need - and surely remains so. But now there is so much more to do.

To take just the one example with which I began: doting over the beloved leaves of the British geological record is a noble activity, and has been brought into the 21st Century with new techniques. "Knowing what is where" is still a key need – but classic geological maps may not be the answer to those needs. Is classic geological mapping not in danger of becoming a cross, albeit a wondrous one, that has to be borne for cultural reasons only?

This month sees the BGS's new Forward Strategy published for consultation. In January's issue (which comes out before Christmas) we will do our bit to foster that debate, running two pieces side by side – one supporting the strategy, another suggesting a different approach. We hope the geological community will engage fully with the issues these pieces raise, because surveys matter to so many more people than just those who work in them, numerous though they are.