A Framework for government research and development':further developments under NERC

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From: Wilson, H.E. Down to earth - one hundred and fifty years of the British Geological Survey. Edinburgh:Scottish Academic Press, 1985.
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V A Framework for government research and development':further developments under NERC[edit]

Sir Alan Cotterell, one-time Chief Scientific Advisor to Government, classified changing ministerial attitudes to science into four periods — like the periods of art. The Primitive Period ran from the first Master General of Ordnance in 1414 to the First World War, including the establishment of such basic organizations as the Royal Observatory and the Geological Survey.

The Classical Period, 1918-1940, was initiated by the Haldane Principle, enunciated by Lord Haldane in 1918, which established the scientific autonomy of government science and said that the relevant ministers should be 'immune from any suspicion of being biased by administrative considerations'. During this time the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research exercised a benign suzerainty over GSGB and, as the accounts of Flett and Bailey show, there was a general acceptance of the relevance of 'pure' research work in a Civil Service department.

The Romantic Period began with the scientific explosion introduced by World War II when, in Cotterell's words, 'science and technology …formed in peoples minds a magic wand for solving national problems',and, for a generation, science was given its head. By the end of the sixties, however, the Modern Period was starting and governments, not only in Britain, were beginning to worry about the cost of science — and its cost-effectiveness! Furthermore the Administrative Class of the Civil Service, conscious that over the last half century scientists and engineers had achieved a good deal of autonomy — they had even, as a result of the 'unfortunate' Barlow Committee in 1945, been granted equality of salaries with their Administrative equivalents — set about bringing the lesser breed to heel.The Central Policy Review Staff, colloquially known as the 'Think Tank' was commissioned to report on government research and development, and the subsequent report, published in 1971 under the imprint of Lord Rothschild, Head of the Central Policy Review Staff, made some controversial suggestions. The Haldane Principle was dismissed as irrelevant to contemporary discussion of government research and the new principle of customer-contractor relations in research was enunciated. The government would henceforth deal with applied research and development as a customer deals with a contractor. Each Department — Industry, Environment, Health, Agriculture — would be the customer, dealing with its relevant research councils and paying for the research it required. In the case of the overwhelmingly greatest research spender, the Ministry of Defence, this relationship was assumed to exist! By and large, these recommendations were accepted by the Government in 1972.

The effects on the Research Councils concerned varied to an extraordinary degree. The largest of all, the Science Research Council, (now the Science & Engineering Research Council), was not regarded as worth consideration because it 'is largely concerned with pure, and to a lesser extent, applied science, which is not synonymous with research', so it remained entirely funded by the Department of Education & Science. The smallest, the Social Science Research Council, was disregarded because it 'is in its infancy'. Of the others, the Agricultural Research Council and the Medical Research Council were obviously respectively concerned only with the Ministries/Departments of Agriculture and Health, and transfer of funds from DES to these bodies was likely to have little effect on the total research effort of the Councils concerned.

The full majesty of the great reforms, therefore, fell on the smallest — excepting SSRC — body of all, NERC. Once again, as in the case of the Fulton reforms five years earlier (p.94), the effects of an an investigation intended to cover the whole of Government fell on only a small part, and once again NERC (and IGS) were the fall guys.

To be just to the Rothschild proposals, and their implementation by the Heath (Conservative) Government in 1972, the proposal was not manifestly unfair. The Department of Education & Science subvention to NERC (the Science Vote) was to fall by 14% in the first year, 21.2% in the second, and 29.4% in the third, the amount made available being transferred to the appropriate customer Ministries/Departments — in NERCs case those of Agriculture (MAFF), Trade & Industry, and Environment.

The sting was in the conditions of transfer — or lack of them. As the White Paper said: 'No conditions will be placed on the money transferred to customer Departments but the expectation is that it will be spent to commission research work from the Research Councils'.

Two things were implied in these statements. Rothschild and Government expected research institutes to find less than one third of their funds from commissioned research; and there was no guarantee that transferred funds would continue to be available for research at all.

The new arrangements came into force with the new financial year 1973-4, towards the end of the Dunham era, during which IGS had already developed a good deal of contract work. In the last pre-Rothschild year, 1972-3, some £991K of the total IGS budget of £5,580K was from projects required and paid for by various departments of Government, notably the Overseas Development Administration and the Departments of the Environment and Trade & Industry.

The transfer of additional programmes had, as Dunham pointed out in his annual report for 1973, the effect of bringing part of the Institute's basic or strategic work under the control of outside departments, and he expressed the pious hope that the greatly increased complexity of administration would not mean that more time was devoted to that than to scientific work. How prophetic this was, soon became apparent.

In the first years of the new dispensation the funding departments took their new roles seriously and the funds at their disposal were used to cover work of interest to them which was either an extension of previous contract work — a considerable extension of the industrial minerals assessment programme, work on the continental shelf, the mineral intelligence and statistical service, the mineral reconnaissance programme — or was agreed to be relevant to their future needs, particularly the revision mapping programme of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. To provide for the continuation of the last a Consortium of interested departments was set up and the costs were distributed as 60% to NERC, 30% to the Department of Environment(DoE), 10% to the Department of Trade & Industry. Regular meetings of the Consortium, or sub-consortia for different areas, became a quarterly event for the Assistant Directors, Unit Heads and representatives of the Departments, and NERC. Numbers, and arguments, increased in 1974 when Department of Energy (DEn) was hived off from Department of Industry (DoI), each taking a 5% share in the Consortium.

Similarly, work commissioned by individual departments in such fields as engineering geology (DoE), industrial minerals (DoE), geochemical reconnaissance (DoI), mineral reconnaissance (DoI), continental shelf (DEn), and hydrogeology (DoE) required a proliferation of review committees which met at least half-yearly and involved endless reports and tabulations. The Civil Service concept of commissioned work was soon seen to be an extension of their government by committee. For instance the DoE Engineering Geology Committee consisted of two IGS members, three from NERC, and about twelve DoE representatives, to review a programme, mainly on slope stability and site assessment in development areas, which cost only a few tens of thousands of pounds per annum.

As time went on the representatives of the 'customer' departments began to assert themselves more and more, querying details of finance, probing the reports of progress in research and generally trying to justify their existence. In many ways this was a salutary exercise, forcing Unit Heads to realise the need to control projects and meet deadlines, but the effectiveness of control varied with the personalities of those customer representatives involved. Some were incisive and concerned with the value of approach — some were nit-pickers who were anxious only to find minor defects.

The implementation of the Rothschild proposals had a more profound effect on IGS than on any other research organisation. The Government White Paper (Cmnd 5046) indicated a cut of about 30% in the direct funding of NERC, and Rothschild's proposal had made it clear that departmental commissions should include a degree of long-term research. The reaction of NERC to the new situation was to encourage as much commissioned research as possible and IGS was far and away the most effective of their 'stations' when trying to encourage sponsorship. With the enthusiastic support of Dunham, all IGS divisions sold their skills so effectively that the proportion of costs covered by commissioned work rose from 17.8% in 1972-3 to 27% in 1974-5, 78.4% in 1975-6, and reached the horrifying maximum of 80.6% in 1978-9. This meant that, with the exception of that part of the field survey programme covered by the NERC element in the Consortium, the running cost of the Museum and some research in geochemistry, geophysics and hydrogeology, the whole work of the Institute was subject to the scrutiny of geologically naive 'assessors' from a variety of commissioning departments.

In these circumstances not only was the freedom of the Director and, indeed, of NERC Council — to order the direction of basic research limited, but sudden changes in outside requirements made it difficult to deploy the staff required.

Furthermore, the great expansion of contract work required the recruitment of many additional staff. At first these were recruited on short-term contracts but in 1976 the staff unions prevailed upon NERC to end contract employment and offer staff in post established positions. When contracts with outside departments were later abruptly terminated, this led to considerable problems.

Astonishingly, this state of affairs seems to have made no impression at all on Government. In 1976 they had established a Committee of Chief Scientists and Permanent Secretaries from the Departments commissioned scientific research, and in 1979 the Lord Privy Seal presented to Parliament a 'Review of the Framework for Government Research & Development, which blandly asserted that the system was working well. It did, however, make a few general points which, as subsequent events showed, were completely ignored by commissioning Departments when circumstances changed. One of these was that:

Departments had a responsibility to sustain, as a safeguard for the future, an adequate research capability in their area of concern … it does place on them a special responsibility to certain contractors … who occupy a central place in the country's scientific activities, such as Research Councils.

Another proviso was that Departments recognised that provision had to be made for the costs of publication.

The review did admit that the new system 'had not been developed without extra administrative costs both to the Departments and contractors'. What these amounted to has not been quantified, but as far as IGS was concerned, probably half the time of the heads of units involved in commissioned research was devoted to preparing tenders - the notorious 'Programme Information Forms' (PIFs) of the Department of the Environment were particularly time-consuming - and writing progress reports, often quarterly and always at least half-yearly. To this was added the burgeoning Finance Section in IGS headquarters and increasingly the Contracts Division in the Swindon tower of NERC. (The headquarters of NERC had moved from Charing Cross Road in London to a new block in Swindon in 1978). It is possible that on some contracts over 10% of the costs went on 'administration'.

In spite of the difficulties it was becoming possible to live with the system when, in 1981, the problems were compounded by the unilateral abandonment of the Consortium by the Department of the Environment, who insisted that henceforth it would only commission mapping programmes that were of immediate value to its component branches. The selective location of the areas nominated meant that, in the following year, virtually the whole resources of the Scottish Land Survey and the Southern England Land Survey had to be deployed on short-term local surveys of development areas covering, at most, a few 1:10 000 sheets, while the Northern England division was able to carry on with 'strategic' revision. The next year saw the situation reversed. This 'ad hoc' switching of resources made systematic revision programmes impossible.

With the dissolution of the Consortium, only the Department of Industry continued to make its 5% contribution to the field programme. The Department of Energy, impressed by the results produced by two years of Science Vote-funded work on the deep structure of Britain by the newly-formed Deep Geology Unit, decided to switch its support to this activity and commissioned a series of. studies which occupied most of the Unit's resources. Originally the expectations had been that though this Unit might be partly occupied by commissioned projects its main effort would be basic and strategic research - but pressure of funds soon diverted the greater part of its work to specific DEn commissions.

When it is remembered that the Government's original intention in transferring money from the Research Councils to customers was to make about 30% of research work 'commissioned', and that 10% of this was to be freed for research 'not immediately related to a specific programme of work', it may be wondered how IGS got itself into the position where over four-fifths of its activity was dictated from outside.

There were two principal reasons. Firstly, in the new and exciting - if widely disliked - 'commercial' atmosphere, Unit Heads and Assistant Directors did vie with each other to land 'commissions'. This was a time of expansion - scientific staff had doubled to almost 600 between 1965 and 1974 - and in the euphoric mood of the time it seemed that big was beautiful. In the early days of commissioned research, too, much of the work did appear to be 'research' in the accepted sense, with the possible exception of the Industrial Minerals Assessment Unit, and new developments, notably on Continental Shelf work, were beneficial in widening the horizons of the IGS.

The second reason was more far-reaching. The Natural Environment Research Council consisted of one large institute, (IGS) and two moderate-sized institutes - British Antarctic Surveys and the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences - and a gaggle of minor biological organizations, some esoteric in the extreme. Only the IGS and IOS were in any way equipped to obtain much commissioned work (BAS being always non-commissioned) and NERC, faced with a 30% drop in Science Vote funding, drove them into accepting anything possible. Though IOS reached about 40% commissioned work it was only IGS who got to the state where they were over three-quarters committed - while the biologists, abetted by the predominantly biological composition of NERC Council, carried on unconcerned.

In 1980 the Research Council was reorganised, the part-time chairman being replaced by a full-time Chairman, Sir Hermann Bondi. The original Secretary - the executive head of the organisation, R J H Beverton - was retired and replaced by a new executive, J Bowman, an agricultural scientist. 13oth Bondi and Bowman were based in Swindon.

The change was not for the better, so far as IGS was concerned. Both were headquarters-orientated and neither appeared to know much about, nor had any obvious sympathy for, the earth sciences. It soon became evident that what they aimed at was a stronger identity for NERC and the reduction in status of its main Institute.

In the years after 1980, when the Thatcher government started to rein-in public spending, there was a dramatic fall in commissioned income, particularly that from the Department of the Environment. By 1984 the proportion of BGS (The Institute of Geological Sciences was renamed 'British Geological Survey' by the Director in 1983) income coming from commissions was below 60%. Though in the first year of this decline NERC did allow a small increase in the Science Vote allocation, this was accompanied by demands for swingeing cuts in staff numbers.

Despite the earlier IGS success in winning and executing very large commissioned contracts, with the 'overheads' accruing to NERC, to the benefit of all its other institutes, the financial and staff cuts had to be met entirely by IGS/BGS. So much for the NERC corporate brotherhood!

As NERC itself had, in the seventies, ended the employment of temporary scientific staff for contract work and had offered permanent 'Established' posts to those so engaged, it was very difficult to make the cuts required. Eventually 'natural wastage' deaths, retirements, resignations — and the introduction of Voluntary Premature Retirement, allowing a few people to retire with a pension at virtually any age — reduced numbers at a rate which kept pace with the required retrenchment. As is inevitable in these circumstances, however, all losses were not in the areas most desirable, for some of those who left for outside fields were among the best prospects for the future.

The total staff numbers fell from 1150 in 1980 to about 930 in 1984 and the situation was just manageable with continued support from the Departments of Energy and Industry when, without warning, NERC cut the Science Vote allocation for 1984-5 by 20%. After the irreducible expenses, such as salaries, rent, etc., the sum left for what is known in financial jargon as 'Other Recurrent Expenses' was about one third of that for the previous year. It was now impossible to do Land Survey fieldwork or equipment maintenance: geophysical observatory recording was halted. The total sum available to the Global Seismology group in 1984-5 was £20,000 less than half the cost of field observations following the earthquake in north Wales — and that available for the Regional Geological Survey programme in East Anglia fell from £100,000 to £10,000. Relocation costs,(i.e. payments to staff for the expenses of moving their home to Keyworth), running at about £400,000 annually and hitherto a NERC responsibility, had to be met from the allocation for basic scientific research.

The overall results of NERC stewardship for the last two decades can be seen in its annual reports. In its first year NERC spent £2,520,000 of which £1.38m (52%) went to IGS. In the following six years, up to the Rothschild 'reforms', the IGS share of the budget fell to 28.5%. Three years later, after the full implementation of the new system, the proportion was 31% of the total budget, but only 25% of the NERC Science Vote. As the proportion of commissioned work increased this latter figure fell to a minimum of only 9% in 1979 and has fluctuated between that and 16% since. In other words that part of the sum alloted to NERC by the Department of Education and Science for research which was allocated to the earth sciences has fallen from a half when the Council was set up, to one sixth in the early eighties. At the same time the receipts for commissioned work from all NERC's institutes have risen from a few hundred thousand pounds in the sixties to about £25m in the eighties, of which some 75% was won and maintained by IGS/BGS.

Of all the masters the Survey has served, from the Commissioners of Woods and Forests to the present, and making allowances for the current financial difficulties, it is true to say that the Natural Environment Research Council has been the least effective and helpful. Over the last quinquennium in particular, its policy appears to have been to discourage research in favour of using its geological institutes as service industries and consulting organisations. The degree of interference in work and administration has steadily increased, even to the extent of ordering component institutes to use a common NERC letter head! As the Director said in his Annual Report for 1979:

If the balance of institutional research is determined solely by non-experts without responsibility for the execution of unsatisfactory programmes and the subsequent repercussions, then the initiative, motivation and morale of the scientists required to undertake the work will inevitably suffer.

Five years on, these words look notably prophetic. Perhaps biologists cannot look beyond their annual cycles.

Those who watch the attrition of the Survey from without have been encouraged in the autumn of 1984 by evidence of the concern of the scientific community at large. A leading article in Nature in October 1984 called attention to the 'scandal' of the run-down of the Geological Survey and suggested that the problem lay in the organisation of NERC. The solution proposed was that NERC should be abolished and the Geological Survey returned to the Civil Service. It is too much to hope that this will happen quickly, but it is surely a consummation devoutly to be wished!

In December 1984 NERC produced a Corporate Plan to cover the years 1985 to 1990. This was released to Directors and the Staff representatives on the Whitley Council in strict secrecy — 'for fear of misunderstanding' — but details started to appear in the press by the end of the month. The 'Plan' was finally released to all staff in February 1985. It indicates a reduction of NERC staff of 900 over the period — implying a loss of about 300 posts in the Geological Survey — and a reorganization of administration to 'simplify and improve the decision-making and management system'!

The main feature of this reorganization is to be the introduction of three Committees of Council responsible for Earth Sciences; Terrestrial and Freshwater Sciences; and Marine Sciences, each to include a 'Director of Science' who would be responsible for the scientific direction of work in their fields. This would effectively remove from the Directors of NERC Institutes — except British Antarctic Surveys which is excluded — the discretion to control the work of their staffs. All power to direct research will be concentrated at Swindon and directors of Institutes — the lower case d is significant — will be mere administrators. This is, of course, what Swindon has been working towards for the last five years.

The 'Plan' has produced notable reaction in and outside the Councils fief. The entire senior staff of the Survey signed a letter to all members of the Council expressing their disquiet: comment and criticism in the scientific press has been widespread; and one member of the Council has resigned in protest. Whether this will affect the implementation of the plan remains to be seen. The impression gained from the present government is that any concession to the critics outside the administration is regarded as weakness, whatever the strength of the arguments. It seems likely that the Department of Education and Science will support the Swindon proposals, regardless of the strength of the case against them and, in the short term, the probability is that the Survey will be reduced to a dependant of the mainly biological NERC.