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Ejecting the Core?

Culshawresized.JPGYou don't know what you've got till it's gone, say Martin Culshaw and Mick Lee.

Geoscientist 21.10 November 2011

In January 2009 we expressed concerns regarding the core ‘national survey’ mission of the British Geological Survey (BGS - Geoscientist 19.1, p17). Recent developments have reinforced these concerns.

Public expenditure is being squeezed and, inevitably, BGS has to cut its science programme. Core activities of BGS are being merged with those of other NERC institutes into a single ‘National Capability’ programme - with a much-reduced budget. The main focus of cuts in BGS will be in baseline onshore geological and geochemical mapping and in data management. BGS acknowledges this will affect the quality of information it provides but claims that the geological map coverage of Britain is now ‘fit for purpose’.

BGS had indeed planned to upgrade baseline geological coverage to an acceptable standard (fit for modern applications) for all of England, Wales and Scotland by 2011. However, erosion of funds for mapping, even before the latest cuts, caused that target to be missed, in spite of many efficiency gains through new technology. In reality, most professional geologists would judge at least 20% of the coverage still to be of inadequate quality for the modern age. Some is based on desk compilation of archive material; superficial deposits are often not mapped to modern standards; and coverage of some urban areas needs updating to include artificial deposits.

Lee Mikeresized.jpgAfter 2011 the ‘onshore mapping programme’ was to move from ‘systematic’ to ‘responsive’ mode, whereby the geological information in each area would be upgraded using a combination of fieldwork and advanced digital methods only in response to specific development needs or research priorities. We have no quarrel with this – indeed we were party to the plan. A further aspiration is to deliver a “multi-scaled 3D geological framework model of the UK”1. However, both objectives are predicated on two things: an adequate starting point (a 2D digital geological map of high and consistent standard); and sufficient on-going funding for responsive revision to keep the geological database refreshed.

In the 1980s BGS was (rightly) criticised for not fulfilling its primary function of providing up-to-date geological maps. This situation has since been turned around through major initiatives in mapping, digital technology and digital data delivery. The user community was critical in 1990 and remains so today. The BGS Board has been abolished, depriving BGS of direct advice on priorities and scrutiny by eminent non-executive directors. The incorporation of the core ‘national survey’ mission into a NERC-wide National Capability programme further distances core activities from users.

All public organisations must change. But even in straitened times priority choices remain. We urge users of BGS information from industry, academia and government to engage with BGS/NERC to reinforce the need for up-to-date baseline geological information (sensu lato, including geochemical, geophysical and geotechnical data onshore and offshore). If the arguments are not heard as loudly as those for other areas of NERC science, then those making difficult decisions on funding priorities will assume that up-to-date baseline information is not important, and the core function of the BGS will be emasculated.

  1. BGS strategy document 2009-14