Product has been added to the basket

Quo vadis BGS?

Martin Culshaw


Martin Culshaw* and Mick Lee# fear a change of direction that could destabilise BGS and damage its ‘national survey’ mission.

Supporting the Culshaw & Lee article is a longer version, with supporting evidence, historical background and references, linked to this page.

Geoscientist 19.1 January 2009

The British Geological Survey (BGS) has set out its new five-year strategy. This coincides with the introduction of a new NERC funding regime and suggestions that BGS should become more of a ‘research institute’.
Mick Lee We have no quarrel with the new strategy; it provides a useful statement of today's geo-environmental challenges and the contribution BGS can make in addressing them. We welcome the continued commitment to strategic mapping and the communication of geoscience knowledge. Both are essential to underpin decision-making by government and society and are core functions of a national geological survey. We also welcome the recognition that whole-system modelling and collaborative science will become increasingly important in tackling challenges associated with climate change and sustainable development.

The problem lies with the issue of priorities (of which the strategy says little) and the potential impact of a new NERC funding model that will radically change the way BGS receives its Science Budget allocation.

The role of BGS

The BGS mission is delivered through an integrated programme (survey, monitoring, information management and applied research) paid for roughly equally from the UK Science Budget (through NERC) and from external sources (commissioned research contracts and fees from geo-information products and services). In recent years new digital information products have revolutionised the availability of BGS’s data holdings and the relevance of BGS to a wide range of geological and non-geological users.

By the middle of the current decade BGS had become a world-leading example of what a modern geological survey should be - a strategic organisation that acted nationally and in the long term; positioned between academia and private sector, working closely with both and boasting a
strong international programme. In particular, it saw itself more as ‘survey with a research mindset’ than ‘research institute’.

The new context

In 2007, NERC produced a new science strategy, and a new methodology for funding environmental research. The NERC strategy has a clear vision and has identified the key environmental research priorities for the next five years. The problem for BGS lies in the way NERC categorises science, the emphasis placed on each type, and the impact of the new budget allocation process.

Rather than viewing BGS’s programme holistically, NERC funding will in future be awarded against numerous categories: the key ones being National Capability (NC) and Research. Survey, monitoring, long-term observation and information management (currently around 90% of the Survey’s NERC-funded programme) are regarded as part of “NC”. Although such work is strategically driven, much of it requires a research-orientated approach; so the NC vs R tags are unhelpful for BGS science.

NC activities at BGS will in future be ‘commissioned’ by NERC, probably in smaller packets of work and favouring activities that directly support current NERC research priorities. NERC recognises that BGS science serves a wider community and underpins government policies beyond NERC’s research agenda, and says it will factor-in the need for such ‘national good’ activities when awarding NC funds. However, there is still no clear definition of “national good”, or what proportion of the total NC budget will be earmarked for it. Whether the wider user community will be involved in the ‘commissioning’ process is also unclear.

Different concerns surround the new process for allocating “R” funding (currently c.10% of BGS’s Science Budget allocation). The plan is that funding for BGS activities categorised as ‘R’ will be “transferred” back to NERC when current projects end. BGS will then re-bid for these, by submitting collaborative research proposals. BGS is confident that it can do this successfully, and such collaboration will undoubtedly strengthen its research profile and NERC science in general. However, if the proportion of BGS’s budget removed by this process increases much above 10%, as has been mooted in some quarters, less money will remain for core “national good” activities.

Then there is the question of BGS’s scientific profile. Setting the correct balance between research and the ‘national survey’ function is tricky, and will necessarily change over time. BGS should undoubtedly develop its whole-system and process modelling capability, and also engage more in the ‘big science’ questions of the day. However, we believe this should be done by building on the current model, not by funding more curiosity-driven research at the expense of the strategic-applied programme.

Where does this leave us? BGS’s new strategy rightly identifies the continued importance of the strategic-applied mission, but says little about relative priorities. Even before the new NERC funding regime is fully implemented, funding for revising onshore geology in areas of outdated coverage has been significantly reduced (delaying the delivery of modern digital data in some areas). The organisation’s internal structure has been radically changed, to focus more on winning grant-style funding. Whatever the aspirations of BGS’s new strategy, we feel there is a real risk that the ‘national good’ strategic-applied programme could be reduced or fragmented, and the long-term stability of BGS damaged.

Baseline geological, geophysical and geochemical information on the 3D shallow geosphere, allied with applied research, is increasingly critical to management of the environment in a period of rapid climate change. Surely the ‘national survey’ function, in its modern digital delivery guise, is more relevant than ever. BGS was rightly criticised in the past for not delivering the geological information required by government and the wider user base. That situation has been turned around in recent years. It would be a pity if that achievement were lost – either by design or as an unintended consequence of a new funding regime.

BGS will need to turn its new strategy into a prioritised work programme. We encourage the geological community to engage with BGS and NERC to ensure that the Survey continues to deliver relevant, up-to-date, baseline information for the benefit of all. BGS is blessed with great staff, committed management and a dedicated Board – they need your active advice and support.

Further information

Supporting the Culshaw & Lee article is a longer version, with supporting evidence, historical background and references, linked to this page.

* Prof Martin Culshaw, formerly Director of Environment and Hazards, British Geological Survey. # Dr Michael Lee, formerly Director of Geology and Resources, British Geological Survey