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What is BGS for?

Martin Culshaw* and Mick Lee#

Over the past couple of years, the British Geological Survey (BGS) has been undergoing one of its periodic bouts of ‘change’. This is partly in response to new funding arrangements introduced by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to deliver its new science Strategy (Natural Environment Research Council 2007a), and partly a shift towards a more ‘academic’ BGS advocated by Prof John Ludden (Executive Director since July 2006). Of course BGS must regularly examine what sort of organisation it needs to be (or whether it should exist at all), and NERC has a duty to ensure that UK Science Budget funds are spent effectively to deliver world class environmental science. However, the changes already implemented, and those in the pipeline are potentially quite profound. They will determine whether the BGS will continue to focus on its applied-strategic mission (delivery of modern digital information and applied research) or move more towards a ‘research institute’ model with a ‘survey’ function attached. This article seeks to promote discussion within the geological community (and beyond) about what they expect from the UK’s national geological survey organisation in the 21st century. It is an extended version of an article by the same authors published in Geoscientist (Culshaw & Lee 2009), providing additional background material and commentary to inform the debate.

The timing of this article is fortunate in that BGS has recently released a new five-year strategy for consultation ( (British Geological Survey 2008). We wholeheartedly welcome the continued commitment in the new strategy to strategic mapping and the communication of geoscience knowledge. Both are essential to underpin decision-making by government and society and both are core elements of the national ‘geological survey’ function. We also welcome the recognition that whole-system modelling and collaborative science will become increasingly important in tackling many of the challenges associated with climate change and sustainable development. Overall, the new strategy is a useful statement of some of the geo-environmental challenges facing us and the contribution BGS hopes to make in addressing them. However, the new strategy says nothing about priorities and does not address the potential impact of NERC’s new funding model on the way BGS receives its allocation of Science Budget funds. Both of these issues will have a critical influence on the balance of the science programme and the type of organisation BGS will become in the future. Whatever the fine words in the new strategy, we believe there is a real danger that the Survey’s core ‘national interest’ programme of strategic survey and applied research might lose out. The point at issue is whether it matters if it does!

The role of BGS

Through the latter part of the last decade and the early part of this, BGS established a clear aim - to provide geological information, knowledge and services that were required by government, industry and academia to underpin management of the environment, sustainable economic development and academic research. It carried out largely applied geoscience research to support this role and prided itself on the quality of what it did and what it produced, and on its independence from government and the private sector. It was a strategic organisation that acted nationally and in the long term. It established a USP (unique selling point) between academia and the private sector, working closely with both, and also had a strong international programme. A summary of the policy drivers and external reviews that led to this position is appended to this in Text box 1.

Broadly speaking, BGS’s work can be divided into three categories: (i) a core programme of strategic survey, information management and applied research, funded by the UK Science Budget (SB) through NERC; (ii) commissioned research (mainly applied) funded by government and industry; and (iii) the provision of geo-information products and services (some chargeable and some free).

The proportion of external income from commissioned research and products/services varied over the years, but gradually settled at around 50% of gross income.

The three components of the programme are strongly interrelated, with information from surveys feeding into new digital products and commissioned research building on, and complementing, the SB-funded programme. Some projects are formally co-funded, with modest Science Budget contributions leveraging significant external income for applied research (e.g. from EU Framework Programmes). This ‘mixed economy’ model has proved responsive and robust, and has enabled BGS to maintain a critical mass that strongly benefits all aspects of the programme. The SB-funded activities have been continually developed and commissioned/co-funded projects in areas such as CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage), offshore hydrocarbons, and groundwater, have produced some of the most useful applied science of direct relevance to national priorities.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s BGS developed a much keener awareness of what its user community required and launched a series of major initiatives to digitise its maps and data holdings, and provide digital 3D geological information (Smith 2005). These activities required significant funding, some of which came as new money from NERC, who enthusiastically supported the strategy, and some from reprioritising activities within the existing BGS budget. The initiatives led to the development of a range of national digital information products, including the GeoReport service and standardised 3D geological models alongside maps, that have revolutionised the availability of the BGS's data holdings and the relevance of the organisation to a wide range of geological and non-geological users (for example, Jackson 2004).

The period to the middle of the current decade culminated in the definition of a new science programme for 2005-10 (British Geological Survey 2005). The new strategy recognised that ‘baseline’ digital geological coverage at a scale of 1:50 000 would be achieved within around five years and envisaged migration to a programme of ‘responsive revision’ of the onshore geology to provide digital 3D information (models as well as maps) and new layers of information for specific applications (for example, of the Quaternary geology for climate change, urban development and environmental applications). A new campaign of high-resolution airborne surveys was planned to define the environmental properties of the shallow geosphere and the offshore programme envisaged new multi-beam surveys of the seabed in collaboration with others. Central to all this was the establishment of a new National Geoscience Framework of 2D/3D information to underpin sustainable development and management of the environment.

The proposed 2005-10 programme was established through a NERC-run international peer review process that included major UK stakeholders. The information and strategic survey components were graded as alpha-5 (the top grade) and the other components were all graded as (mostly high) alpha-4. The review panel recommended a significant increase in operational funding to achieve this vision, a substantial part of which was to be used for a new BGS-university collaborative research initiative. The contents of the new programme and an increase in baseline funding were approved in principle by NERC Council.

Overall, it can be argued that by the middle of the current decade BGS had, under its then Executive Director David Falvey, become a world leader in establishing what a modern geological survey should be. It had its faults of course (no pun intended) but had a clear understanding of how these should be addressed. Moreover, it had a clear vision for its future programme and appeared to have strong support for its stance from much of the user community.

The new context

So what has changed since 2005? NERC began its own review in preparation for a forthcoming government Comprehensive Spending Review and felt that any additional baseline funding for BGS would restrict its headroom for funding new science. Therefore, BGS was asked to deliver its new programme (or as much as possible) with level funding. This inevitably meant that many of the new survey initiatives and the proposed collaborative programme with the universities had to be scaled back. The NERC review went on to produce a new science strategy (Natural Environment Research Council 2007a) and a new methodology for funding environmental research. The new strategy was developed through extensive consultation, including with geoscientists, but by virtue of needing to cover the whole spectrum of environmental sciences, input from BGS’s day-to-day user community was necessarily limited.

The new NERC strategy is not at issue – it has a clear vision and has identified the key environmental research priorities that need to be addressed over the next five years. Central to achieving the strategy is the desire to align science programmes across NERC (within its own research institutes and universities) to maximise collaboration and efficiency. No one could reasonably argue with this – it makes no sense for BGS, The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and universities to run unconnected NERC-funded programmes on (say) climate change. The problem, for BGS, lies in the categorisation of NERC science, the emphasis placed on each type, and the impact of the new budget allocation process (see  text box 2).

The division of funding into National Capability and Research is, in itself, somewhat unhelpful in the case of geoscience. Field observations (geological mapping and geophysical/geochemical surveys) are an indivisible part of the scientific process that leads to the development of new models, concepts and theories – much as Darwin’s long-term observations were integral to (and ran in parallel with) his development of the theory of evolution! In the context of a 21st century Geological Survey Organisation, new field observations run in parallel with 3D modelling and interdependent research to develop a modern understanding of the 3D subsurface structure and geo-environmental properties of the shallow geosphere. Although such work is strategically- rather than curiosity- driven, it requires a research-orientated mindset. The division into National Capability and Research (responsive and directed, see below) may work well for much of NERC but it does pose difficulties for strategic ‘survey’ organisations such as BGS.

In the case of National Capability activities (currently around 90% of BGS’s Science Budget allocation) it will be important to recognise and mitigate the potential impact of the new funding mechanism. The division of NC into smaller work packages, with an overarching mindset favouring activities that directly support NERC’s current research priorities, could weaken the strategic approach and fragment the programme. NERC has said it will factor-in the need for such ‘national good’ activities when awarding NC funds and proposes a new government advisory committee to help identify ‘national good’ priorities. However, there is still no clear definition of 'national good' or what proportion of the total National Capability budget will be earmarked for such activities. It is also unclear whether there will be any involvement by the wider user community in the NC ‘commissioning’ process.

In recent years, such input has been provided by Regional Advisory Panels, periodic Programme Development Groups and, ultimately, by the BGS Board. BGS has been fortunate in having a most effective Board, with eminent non-executive members from industry, government and academia providing dedicated service and invaluable advice. Quite how the BGS Board, the new ‘government advisory panel’, and the various NERC advisory panels and executive groups are meant to interact is very unclear. The user community will need to keep a close watch on the situation, in particular to ensure that the BGS Board is not weakened or sidelined.

Different concerns surround the new process for allocating Research funding (currently around 10% of BGS’s Science Budget allocation). BGS is confident that it can bid successfully, in collaboration with others, for grant-style Research funding, and such collaboration will undoubtedly strengthen BGS’s 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, there will be less money for BGS’s National Capability activities (the core ‘survey’ mission).

Scientific profile

In addition to the potential impact of NERC’s new funding mechanisms, there is the question of BGS’s scientific profile. NERC appears to want a more ‘academic’ BGS, more in line with the mainstream NERC ethos. Prof Ludden is also on record as seeing BGS more in terms of a research institute with a ‘survey’ function attached. A change of name to something like 'Centre for Applied Geoscience' has even been mooted. Such thinking is sometimes accompanied by a perception that the BGS strategic programme of survey, modelling and information delivery is ‘not proper science’ (i.e. only curiosity-driven research is real science). This seems a very narrow definition of science and is at odds with the government’s desire to fund science that supports the creation of a knowledge economy. It is also deeply offensive to BGS scientists who are dedicated to providing what the nation needs. BGS’s recent work in geo-information and 3D geo-modelling is a case in point. This was judged as world-class science by recent international peer-review and has a high ‘impact factor’ in the real world. It may not be ‘curiosity-driven’ science but is surely just as valuable.

Having said this, the comments of the 2003 Science and Management Audit regarding peer-reviewed publications are fair (see text box 1) – BGS has a respectable publication record but had taken its eye off the ball in terms of high-impact, peer-reviewed output during the drive to deliver relevant, up-to-date digital information. Science is only useful if people know about and BGS should certainly increase its output of peer-reviewed papers. BGS also needs to engage even more in major international research projects and the ‘big science’ questions of the day. However, these objectives are relatively easy to achieve. BGS has more than enough material to support a greater publication rate and undoubtedly has the expertise to engage more in international research projects.

We believe that BGS can make a greater contribution to science (in its broadest definition) by building on the current model, not by funding curiosity-driven research at the expense of the strategic-applied programme, or by going back to a research institute model. BGS has always operated more towards the ‘strategic’ end of the (strategic to blue-skies) science spectrum and has generated excellent research alongside (and integrated with) its strategic survey programme. It is important that contributions to all parts of the spectrum are valued equally. This is not just relevant to debates about funding – it also affects how staff will react. If they feel that they will be judged primarily on their academic-style output they are unlikely to wish to engage in ‘national good’ activities or commissioned research, where there may be fewer opportunities to build up their personal citation indices.

Relationships between BGS, NERC and the universities

A central part of NERC's mission is to support, encourage and fund excellent, world class research in the environmental sciences. This research is funded either in 'responsive' mode (by funding the best freely-submitted research proposals by academic teams, the quality of which is judged by their peers) or in a 'directed' mode (where a research strategy is developed by NERC and proposals submitted to help deliver the strategy).

However, NERC also has responsibility for sustaining a number of survey and research centres (NOC, CEH, BGS, BAS, POL). As these institutes employ over 2000 staff, the cost of maintaining them takes up a significant part of NERC's overall budget (around a third in 2006-7 and 2007-8). NERC's allocation to BGS amounted to about £27.7m in 2006-7 and £27.6m in 2007-8 (excluding new building costs) (Natural Environment Research Council 2007b, 2008). These are not inconsiderable sums of money and quite naturally come under scrutiny by those seeking funds for their own activities.

As the nature of academic research funding has become increasingly competitive and the pressures of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to publish ever 'higher' standard papers has intensified, so some academics have lobbied NERC to transfer part of BGS's budget to the funding of research that would be done mainly in our universities. This battle for funding has clouded the understanding of some in academia of what BGS does, why it does it and for whom it does it.

Comparisons between BGS and universities based on RAE-style measures are at best unhelpful (each has a radically different function and purpose) and at worst disingenuous – especially when used to justify calls for BGS down-sizing or budget reduction. For example, much of BGS's research is applied but most applied journals have low impact factors, usually below 1.0. Does publication in such journals really provide a measure of the quality of the research or its value to the user community? Should BGS really engage in a citation-index race and funding competition with universities? The answer, surely, is for BGS to increase the visibility of its science, as suggested above, whilst continuing to fulfil the core mission of generating top-quality strategic information and applied research of direct use to the user community. In other words, develop collaboration with universities based on mutual respect of respective strengths.

It is perhaps also worth commenting more generally on BGS’s position within NERC. Although BGS has sometimes felt uneasy within NERC - its public good strategic-applied mission slightly at odds with NERC’s research-focused agenda – BGS would undoubtedly have been much more vulnerable to the vagaries of government policy changes had it not been part of the NERC family. NERC has also strongly supported the major information initiatives that have so strengthened BGS in recent years and has always expressed pride in what BGS has achieved. Furthermore, it must be recognised that NERC provides 50% of BGS’s funding - by far its largest source of income - and has a duty to ensure that the money is spent effectively. This is something BGS has sometimes forgotten in its periodic bouts of NERC-bashing. Whether BGS should be part of NERC or move to another parent body is a perfectly valid question, but not a decision to be taken lightly.

What does the community want?

So where does this leave us? BGS is currently undergoing a change of direction and funding that could turn out to be quite profound. Some of the changes may be deliberate policy and some may be the (unintended?) consequence of the new NERC funding regime. Either way, there is a risk that the long-term stability of BGS could be damaged and the ‘national good’ strategic-applied programme reduced or fragmented. The new BGS strategy rightly identifies the continued importance of the strategic-applied mission but says little about relative priorities within the programme or changes in funding that could seriously affect its ability to deliver national coverage of up-to-date geological, geophysical and geochemical data.

The need for BGS to change and evolve is not in question – the type of change is. The planned programme for 2005-10, which was so strongly endorsed by international peer review in 2004, has been largely sidelined during the past two years and funding for revision of the geology in areas of inadequate coverage has already been significantly reduced (delaying the delivery of modern digital data in some areas). The internal structure of the organisation has also been radically changed to focus more on winning grant-style funding, and there is considerable internal reservation about the direction of travel and the impact of the changes on BGS’s long-term future.

Both authors of this article saw their posts (as Director Environment & Hazards and Director of Geology & Resources) abolished in 2007 after questioning the change of emphasis and effectiveness of the new structure, so readers will be forgiven for thinking that this article is written from a somewhat jaundiced perspective. However, those who know us will understand that we are concerned only with the long-term viability and success of BGS in the national interest.

Price (2000) described what needs to be done when he discussed the contribution of US State Geological Surveys in sustainable development: “Perhaps one of the most important aspects of sustainable development in a country is sustaining the national geological survey itself. ........ Explaining to the public and to policy makers how vital geological information is for sustainable economies and the environment is a constant challenge for the geological community.” (authors’ emphasis).

In recent years the situation has become even clearer - baseline geological, geophysical and geochemical information on the 3D shallow geosphere, allied with closely-coupled 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 to go backwards, whether by design or as an ‘unintended consequence’ of a new funding regime.

So, does the geological community wish to see a swing away from the delivery of modern, relevant information in favour of more grant-style research? Or, was the model established by around 2005 (held as an example to be followed by many other geological survey organisations around the world) broadly fit for purpose? How should BGS best be administered and funded to meet the country's requirements? These questions have been asked many times throughout BGS’s long history but perhaps they should be addressed again in the context of the current situation. In any event, we believe that UK geoscientists need to understand what is happening and form their own judgement. It is surely wrong for the BGS to change irrevocably without the wide range of users of its products and services being aware.

To date, there has been little discussion of the changes with the community that relies on BGS products and services. We encourage the geological community to read the new BGS strategy, to consider the questions that the strategy does not address and to engage with BGS and NERC to ensure that the Survey is maintained as a strong and relevant organisation for the benefit of all. BGS is blessed with great staff, committed management and a dedicated Board – they need your active advice and support.


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