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NERC Consultation: Governance and Ownership of NERC Centres

NERC has launched a consultation into the ownership and governance of NERC centres. The submission produced by the Geological Society, the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain, the Committee of Heads of University Geosciences Departments and the British Geophysical Association can be found below.

You can read the terms of reference and associated documents on the NERC website

Submitted 30 August 2013

  1. This submission has been produced jointly by the Geological Society of London, the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain, the Committee of Heads of University Geosciences Departments and the British Geophysical Association. Together with the British Geological Survey (BGS), our organisations represent a significant part of the UK geoscience community, spanning academia, industry and government:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             i. The Geological Society of London (GSL) is the national learned and professional body for geoscience, with over 10,500 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant geoscience. The Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-technical audiences, and works with others in the geoscience community to highlight the importance of the geoscience research base and its application to the economy and society. Its functions in this regard are complementary to those of the BGS.

    ii. The Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain (PESGB) represents the national community of Earth scientists working in the oil and gas industry, with over 5,000 members worldwide. The objective of the Society is to promote, for the public benefit, education in the scientific and technical aspects of petroleum exploration. To achieve this objective the PESGB makes regular charitable disbursements, holds monthly lecture meetings in London and Aberdeen and both organises and sponsors other conferences, seminars, workshops, field trips and publications.

    iii. The Committee of Heads of University Geosciences Departments (CHUGD) is the subject association of Geoscience (geology, applied geology, Earth science, geophysics, geochemistry and some environmental science) departments/schools based within universities in the British Isles. It promotes discussion and exchange of information between departments and provides a point of contact between these and professional, government and quality control agencies.

    iv. The British Geophysical Association (BGA) represents geophysicists in academia and industry who are members of the Royal Astronomical Society and/or the Geological Society of London. Its role is to promote geophysics and knowledge about geophysics at national and international levels.

  2. Our comments below relate principally to the BGS, the research centre with which our organisations and the communities they represent are most closely involved, but many of our observations are also relevant to the other NERC centres whose ownership and governance is under review, particularly the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) which does significant geoscientific work.
  3. NERC’s call for evidence notes the national importance of NERC centres in ‘providing a range of ‘national’ or ‘public’ good services that benefit a range of government departments and public policy formation’. We are pleased to see this role recognised, but its scope and benefits are much wider than this statement implies. Through partnerships with industry, BGS plays a vital role in wealth creation by providing underpinning or precompetitive data and research. It contributes to the UK’s research base more widely, through its own programme of excellent science, and through strategic partnerships and collaborative research programmes with universities. We note that NERC’s 2013 evaluation of its research centres rated the impact of BGS research outstanding or excellent in 91% of cases. Taken in conjunction with BGS’s partnerships with key higher education institutions, this constitutes a valuable asset to the UK. BGS’s services and activities also support the quality of life of the UK’s population, helping to deliver security of supply of energy and mineral resources, the sustainable management of wastes generated by our use of these resources, and preparedness for and response to impacts of natural hazards and environmental change. This work includes the provision of independent and impartial environmental impact studies and monitoring to ensure public safety, and the dissemination of public information, in relation to a broad range of industrial activities, especially in the energy sector.
  4. These benefits are delivered through several (overlapping) nationally important functions:                                                                a. Survey and monitoring functions
    b. National capability functions (e.g. analytical services provided by BGS laboratories, development of the GB3D national geological model, publication of commodities/mineral profiles)
    c. ‘Contractor’ for government (e.g. assessment of shale gas resources, screening of potential areas under consideration for geological disposal of radioactive waste)
    d. Advisor to government (e.g. on volcanic ash)
    e. Participation and leadership in international initiatives (e.g. One Geology initiative to make geological map data of the world freely available, European Geoscience Data Infrastructure project, Global Earthquake Model)

  5. In addition to these broader national functions, the future health and wellbeing of BGS is a matter of vital importance to the UK geoscience community, of which it constitutes an essential part. It is a significant employer of geoscientists, many of them Fellows of the Geological Society. Furthermore, the academic and industrial geoscience communities with which it works in partnership depend on BGS expertise, data and research outputs. The NOC is similarly important in some areas of geoscience.
  6. In addition to its headquarters at Keyworth and a significant presence in Edinburgh, BGS has smaller offices and facilities throughout the UK. It also runs the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, under contract to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which works closely with the Geological Survey of Ireland. This cooperation has led to valuable cross-border and all-Ireland initiatives such as the Tellus geophysical and geochemical surveys.
  7. We have no preferred model for the future ownership and governance of BGS and the other NERC centres. There is insufficient detail at this stage to comment on the merits or otherwise of any model NERC may be considering. A wide variety of potential ownership and governance models exist, encompassing a range of possible relationships with government and other public bodies, whether or not the centres themselves continue to be owned by NERC, or indeed remain in public ownership. To be fit for purpose, any proposed new model must meet a range of needs, and will have to be carefully designed and examined. Each centre should be treated separately. Any assessment of alternative models should be guided by the needs of BGS and NERC’s other centres, and those of their customers. It would be beneficial to seek advice from organisations with expertise and successful experience in outsourcing, which is not easy to do well. Some factors which should be considered when considering possible ownership and governance models are outlined below.
  8. The nationally important functions outlined above must be safeguarded. The UK will continue to need a high-quality national geological survey, and it is essential that there is confidence in BGS’s long-term viability and excellence in these regards. Any new structure should ensure that BGS continues to be able to play a leading role internationally among national geological surveys. It must also be conducive to effective international data sharing. A degree of protection is likely to be needed for some functions of BGS, and possibly for the organisation as a whole, to provide these safeguards. NERC and central government will no doubt consider the implications of any models under which there is the possibility of BGS, or any other NERC centre, becoming bankrupt.
  9. In other areas of activity, where BGS competes with commercial companies for work as a contractor (whether to public or private sector bodies), it should be ensured as far as possible that there is a level playing field between BGS and its competitors. This is not a straightforward matter, and will need careful thought. There is a risk that any protection extended to BGS to safeguard nationally important functions, together with its ownership of and access to its unrivalled data holdings, may lend it an unfair competitive advantage. On the other hand, it seems likely BGS will be obliged to share many of its data resources openly – something it will no doubt also wish to do, given its existing strong commitment to open data. Its competitive advantage would then lie solely in its expertise and ability to interpret the data, rather than in its ownership and access. If companies have access to data and associated research outputs generated by BGS work and investment, without being obliged to reciprocate, this could give unfair advantage to BGS’s commercial competitors. Care should be taken not to inadvertently ‘asset strip’ BGS of its data – arguably its principal asset and in large part taxpayer funded.
  10. If the existing model for NERC centres is to change, thought should also be given to future governance and management arrangements for NERC research facilities, especially those which are closely associated with research centres (such as the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, in the case of BGS). Appropriate arrangements are likely to differ case-by-case.
  11. The links between BGS and other NERC centres are of great value. For example, the holistic approach to environmental policy-making espoused by national administrations throughout the UK depends on a wide variety of research funded by NERC and carried out across universities and its own centres. Implementation of policy in this area is underpinned by work done across BGS, NOC and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH). Governments have shown a tendency, in implementing this approach, to undervalue geoservices, abiotic aspects of ecosystems, and the role of the geosphere in sustaining them. The marginalisation of these vital factors is likely to be exacerbated if effective links between the centres are not maintained.
  12. No doubt NERC will review the experience of other UK Research Councils which have undertaken similar reviews of their own research centres, and in some cases relinquished ownership. NERC should also look at the ownership and governance models of other national geological surveys, and at reviews and instances of restructuring which have been undertaken internationally. Although they exhibit some significant differences, national surveys generally share many similarities and meet a number of common national needs. They are likely therefore to constitute a useful point of comparison, complementing the particular UK context. It is especially important that the international setting is considered, given the high regard in which BGS is held internationally, and its valuable leadership role. Of course, different national settings and political cultures have given rise to models which are unlikely to be directly applicable in the UK, but there may be useful lessons to be learned.
  13. It is essential that any new model has the confidence of BGS (and other centres) and their scientists. They are uniquely placed to advise on existing arrangements, their benefits and deficiencies, and how these might be improved in future. They must have a leading role in decision-making about future ownership and governance arrangements.
  14. We recommend a thorough analysis and review of each centre be undertaken before any final decisions are made. We strongly recommend consulting in detail on any particular proposed model, to ensure that it has the confidence of the wider geological community, relevant parts of government, customer groups and other stakeholders, including those with successful experience of outsourcing nationally significant services. In doing so, it would be helpful for NERC to set out the current and intended roles and functions of each research centre. We would be pleased to discuss how best to engage stakeholders in any review of the research centres and in developing specific proposals, and to canvass the views of the wider geoscience community on such proposals if NERC decides to take the matter further.


Update on NERC Review of Governance and Ownership of BGS and Other Research Centres

NERC is carrying out a review of the ownership and governance of its research centres, including BGS. Read a progress report on the review here.