First hundred and fifty years — a geological survey in transition

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From: Allen, P M. 2003. A geological survey in transition. British Geological Survey Occasional Publication No. 1. Keyworth:British Geological Survey.
Aerial view of the Keyworth site taken when all scheduled building work and moves from London and Leeds were completed. Site changes made since then include the conversion of one of the tennis courts at the eastern end of the site into additional car parks and the extension of the National Geoscience Data Centre. Plate 1

Chapter 1 The first hundred and fifty years[edit]

It is not the purpose of this book to go over the ground covered in the histories published by Flett, Bailey and Wilson, mentioned in the Foreword, but when an organisation is over a hundred and sixty five years old it is impossible to describe what happened in the last fifteen to twenty without some reference to what had gone before. The process of change that has been so vigorous in the last three decades is part of a continuum that began long ago and can only be viewed properly in the context of past events. The published histories have generally concentrated on the work of the Survey and, although there was some reference to the external pressures on its management and the political framework within which it operated, these were not central themes and little analysis was offered. It is useful, then, before embarking on the detail of the last fifteen to twenty years, to pick out some of the events and drivers that influenced the way the Survey was able to develop in the early and middle stages of its history.

There is no single, defining event that marks the origin of the British Geological Survey, though the process that ultimately led to its foundation probably began with the geological surveys, described by Harry Wilson, which had been initiated by the Board of Ordnance in Scotland and Ireland in the years that preceded the contract let to Henry De la Beche in 1832 to add geological information to the topographical map of Devonshire. De la Beche had been making a geological map of the county, funding it himself, for some years, but the failure of his income from his estate in Jamaica led him to ask the Ordnance Trigonometrical Survey of Great Britain for a sum of £300 to complete this work. Three years later, when De la Beche had completed the map of Devon, he proposed to embark on mapping Cornwall. The Board of Ordnance took him on as a salaried employee with the aim, eventually, of making a decision about carrying out a geological survey of the whole of the country. It is this year, 1835, which is usually regarded as the founding date of the Geological Survey, not 1832, or 1845 when the Geological Survey became independent of the Ordnance Survey by Act of Parliament, the Geological Survey Act of 1845.

The British Geological Survey is generally credited with being the first national geological survey in the world. There is no surprise here. The Geological Survey is a direct product of the Industrial Revolution and the extraordinary intellectual vigour that characterised Great Britain at that time. Geology itself was a newly independent science, and Charles Lyell’s book, Principles of geology, which was the first attempt to define the basis for the science, was published only in the period 1831 to 1833. Equally important for the Geological Survey was the publication of the geological map of England and Wales by William Smith in 1815. This most remarkable map, at the scale of five miles to the inch, took him twenty-four years to make and bears a striking resemblance to its modern equivalent.

William Smith, who is usually described as the ‘father of stratigraphy’, had a life-long interest in geology, which he applied to his work as a canal builder. Smith observed that different layers of sedimentary rock contained different fossils, and from this was able to determine the relative ages of the different layers. Maps showing the distribution of different types of rock had been produced since antiquity — indeed a map showing the rocks in the area around a gold mine exists from ancient Egypt — but William Smith’s map was the first truly modern geological map, in which the relative ages of the strata were reliably shown, as well as differences in rock type and their structural relationships with each other. William Smith’s discovery provided geology with a predictive tool that revolutionised the way in which the science was conducted. It enabled a geologist, by making observations and measurements at one field locality, to make a reasonably good attempt at predicting where else it may be possible to find that same rock. The improvement in the quality of geological maps that followed this was immeasurable and turned them into documents of real utility.

The invention of this type of geological map was timely. The Industrial Revolution was creating a demand for huge quantities of the Earth’s resources. At the end of the eighteenth century Great Britain had the biggest and most diverse mining industry in the world, with a massive production of copper, lead, zinc, tin and iron, and substantial outputs of a wide variety of other metals and minerals. The demand for all manner of building materials was insatiable and there were thousands of small stone quarries providing building stone. Geological knowledge was required for building canals and roads, for locating sources of groundwater in areas where the supply of surface water was poor and for finding fertiliser and conditioners for the improvement of the soil to increase the supply of food for the growing population. William Smith himself, in A Memoir to the Map and Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with a part of Scotland, which accompanied his 1815 map, had listed the diverse uses for the information provided on a geological map in a way that is recognisable and applicable today. When Henry De la Beche made his application to the Treasury for funds to make a geological map of Great Britain at the scale of one inch to one mile he met little opposition.

De la Beche was both a practical man and a visionary. As Paul J McCartney described in his book, Henry De la Beche: observations on an observer, he understood not only the utility of geological maps, but also that it was necessary to educate the public about them and train people in geology so that they could take their expertise to their work in mines, canal building and elsewhere, and also that it was essential for Government to keep records in relation to the largely unregulated mining industry. Thus, in addition to the Geological Survey, he created the School of Mines, the Mining Records Office and the Museum of Practical Geology. All came under his direction, but by 1872 the links with the School of Mines (now the Royal School of Mines at Imperial College) had been severed. The Mining Records Office was transferred to the Home Office in 1883. Almost exactly a century later, in 1985, the Museum of Practical Geology was transferred from the Geological Survey to the British Museum of Natural History. The progressive narrowing of the remit of the Survey from De la Beche’s ideal continued in other ways. In 1905 the Geological Survey lost its responsibility for surveying in Ireland. The impact of this was virtually to end all geological mapping in Ulster in the period 1923 to 1947. When geological surveying was resumed it was carried out by the Geological Survey under contract to the Northern Ireland Government. This position has remained unchanged. Thus, in Northern Ireland, as in the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles, the Geological Survey does not have a remit to work without making special provisions.

The first home for the Geological Survey was with the Commissioners of Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works and Buildings. In 1854 it was transferred to the Department of Science and Art, which was in the Board of Trade. Later in that decade it was moved to the Education Department of the Privy Council. It was at this point that the Director of the Survey ceased to have direct access to a Minister of State. This is a situation that has prevailed ever since and has been a cause for complaint by many Directors, though the lack of a direct link to a Minister and the consequent absence of ministerial protection for the Director have, at times, been beneficial. In 1900, staff discontent with their treatment by the Director, Sir Archibald Geikie, was so intense that they managed to raise the matter in Parliament. An enquiry into the whole period of Geikie’s tenure followed.

This was the first external enquiry into the working of the Geological Survey, and its impact was considerable. The enquiry committee was chaired by J L Wharton, MP and consisted of W T Blanford, a former Director of the Geological Survey of India, and Charles Lapworth. Its findings led to wide-ranging reforms in the management of the Survey and probably forced the retirement of its Director the next year. One of the most significant outcomes was the establishment of a Consultative Committee on the Geological Survey to oversee the activities of the Survey. This was later called the Committee of Advice and it remained active until 1919. This insertion of a buffer between the Director and ministers, though it did offer the staff some protection from poor management, was a further distancing of the Director of the Geological Survey from the seat of power.

Quite early in his career as Director of the Geological Survey, De la Beche was pressed to make a statement about when the survey was going to be completed. In the end he answered by saying, cleverly, that it would be completed when the topographical survey finished. The question, however, was a reflection of the laissez-faire attitude of Governments of the period, which were reluctant sometimes to provide the funds that De la Beche and his successors needed. The speed of the survey, remarkable though it was, slowed when, in the 1860s, the Ordnance Survey began to publish topographical maps at the scale of six inches to the mile. These immediately became the favoured maps for field recording among the geologists, a situation that remains to this day though now the scale is 1:10 000. The survey was planned to be systematic, starting in the south of England and moving north, but a new direction was provided for it in 1871. This was the year that the Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the several matters relating to Coal in the United Kingdom, usually referred to as the Royal Coal Commission, was presented to the Houses of Parliament. The Government of the day was concerned about the possibility of exhausting the coal resources of the country. The Commission looked into several matters, but one of them was critically important to the Geological Survey. This was the investigation into the possibility of finding coal at depth beneath the Permian and Triassic rocks and in south-east England. The report concluded that there was a strong possibility of finding concealed coal in many places, but not in south-east England. This conclusion, in identifying the strategic importance of coal, forced the Geological Survey to prioritise its mapping, rather than pursue a systematic survey. Something similar happened in 1919 when the Coal Conservation Committee reported.

In 1919 the Geological Survey was moved into the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DISR), partly on the recommendation of the Coal Conservation Committee, which had reported that year. The Committee had been tasked to deal with concerns about the supply of coal, the most important of all strategic minerals, during the First World War. It had been severely critical of the poor quality of geological maps of the coalfields. By then, all of England and Wales had been surveyed at one inch or six inches to one mile, often using the large-scale maps for field recording but working at the small-scale resolution. A programme of resurveying areas in more detail was under way. The Survey reacted to the Coal Conservation Committee’s criticism by concentrating its efforts on the coalfields in preference to other areas. This prioritisation within the mapping programme was to remain for nearly half a century. It delayed the completion of the systematic resurvey of England and Wales that had begun; it left many parts of the country, particularly the upland and fen areas, with nothing better than the one-inch geological maps produced in the middle of the nineteenth century and it delayed the completion of the primary survey in Scotland. When a major programme of resurvey began in 1990, there were some substantial areas which had not been mapped by Survey geologists for one and a half centuries and some areas that had never been mapped at all.

The Survey remained in DSIR until the latter was disbanded in 1965. Each of the component bodies of the DSIR was overseen by a Board. The Survey came under the Geological Survey Board. Made up of eminent academics and representatives from industry and Government, this was a powerful body. It had the authority to redirect the work programme, which it did on more than one occasion, but it also had influence within the DSIR, which seemed to compensate for the lack of a direct ministerial link in the previous organisational arrangements. One example of the benefit the Geological Survey Board brought is in relation to the publication of the report of the Coal Conservation Committee in 1919, which required the Survey to intensify its mapping in the coalfields. The Survey was able to undertake this task because the Board prevailed upon the DSIR to increase its budget to enable it to recruit more staff.

The next change in the administration of the Geological Survey came as a result of the Trend Committee, set up in 1962 to look into the working of the DSIR. In the Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the organisation of Civil Science (Cmnd 2171, published in 1963) it was concluded that DSIR should be disbanded and its components reformed within research councils. The Science and Technology Act of 1965 led to the creation of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) by Royal Charter. The Geological Survey of Great Britain was transferred into it. At the same time as this was happening, a committee under Sir Frederick Brundrett (Report of the Committee on Technical Assistance for Overseas Geology and Mining, Cmnd 2353) was considering the future of the Directorate of Overseas Geological Surveys, then a part of the Department of Technical Co-operation. The committee’s conclusion was that the Overseas Geological Surveys should be combined with the Atomic Energy Division of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and incorporated into the GSGB. The newly combined organisation was placed into the NERC and called the Institute of Geological Sciences.

There were enormous consequences of this change. Before 1965, the main purpose of the Geological Survey of Great Britain had been to make geological maps of the country and publish descriptive accounts to accompany them. To carry this out, the Survey mainly employed geologists for field mapping, together with a few palaeontologists, petrologists (specialists in the chemistry and mineral composition of rocks) and other specialists to support them. Specialists in hydrogeology had been added when the Survey took on responsibilities for groundwater.

Within the Institute of Geological Sciences, geological surveying of the UK landmass became reduced to less than half of the remit of the new body immediately it was formed. Soon after, as a wide range of new activities was taken on, it was reduced further to become, eventually, a minor activity in terms of the staff time devoted to it. The field units within the Geological Survey of Great Britain became collectively known, informally, as the Land Survey within the Institute of Geological Sciences. It continued with the work of its predecessor, somewhat isolated within the Institute. The most important impact of this change, however, was that instead of having a single, easily defined, purpose, like the Geological Survey of Great Britain, the new Institute of Geological Sciences had a multiplicity of purposes, the limits to which were never clearly defined. This left the door open for the immense amount of experimentation within the process of change that was to be undertaken in the decades that followed, giving the BGS freedoms that were not available to most other geological surveys when they had to face similar pressures to adapt to a free-market economy.

The conversion of the mapping-orientated Geological Survey to the broadly based Institute of Geological Sciences was an implicit recognition that Government and the public now required something more from the Survey than a geological map of the UK landmass. The geological survey of the continental shelf and massive programmes to assess the national asset of building materials and industrial and metalliferous minerals, which began just before the creation of the IGS and expanded afterwards, are some of the ways in which the survey remit expanded. In parallel, there were programmes of research into the chemistry and physics of rocks that led to increasing sophistication of laboratory and other facilities. Most of these new facilities were brought into the IGS from the Overseas Geological Surveys, where the approach to geological mapping was quite different to that in the Geological Survey of Great Britain. Working overseas, where large areas had to be mapped quickly, staff in the OGS had learned to use air photography, geochemistry and geophysics to help them. They were equipped to find the ages of rocks using radioactive isotopes, and their chemical analytical facilities were used to support mineral exploration. The Geological Survey of Great Britain, on the other hand, was a traditional field-based organisation, which used none of these techniques. After the merger, something was to be learned by each from the other, but the biggest impact was made by the OGS, whose broad, open and innovative approach to geological surveying was such a contrast to the conservatism of the Land Survey.

There were other consequences of the creation of the Institute of Geological Sciences. One was that by 1967 all staff in the merged organisation had ceased to be civil servants. Working for a research council, they now formed a new class of non-ministerial Government employees, though their employment conditions remained the same as those of civil servants. This is not as trivial as it may seem. The Survey was now firmly placed on the margins of the public sector, whereas once it had been within the mainstream of Government.

More serious was the loss of the Survey’s legal identity. The Geological Survey Act of 1845, an enabling act that had facilitated geological surveying for one hundred and twenty years, had been amended and subsumed by the Science and Technology Act, 1965. All the provisions in the Geological Survey Act and the various other, later Acts of Parliament that related to the Geological Survey had been transferred to the Natural Environment Research Council. This meant that the Institute of Geological Sciences became an instrument of the NERC, which, in theory at least, had the potential to reorganise, disband or dispose of the Survey in any way that it saw fit. The 1965 Act itself described the function of the NERC as, among other things, to carry out research in the earth sciences, disseminate knowledge in the earth sciences and provide advice on it. The Charter of the research council was no more specific in this respect. It was left to NERC Council itself to decide whether or not the work programme being carried out in the bodies that came together to form the Institute of Geological Sciences constituted research and was of a type that it wanted to support. Council also could decide whether or not it needed component, self-managing institutes to carry out its research. Some other research councils did not operate this way. The supplemental charter of December 1993 does not differ from the original in this respect.

The Geological Survey Board was disbanded with the DSIR, and there was no intention to replace it with something similar within the NERC. From 1965 the IGS was overseen by the Geology and Geophysics Advisory Committee of the NERC. The purpose of this and the four similar committees covering other science disciplines in the NERC was to help the new Council develop its research programme. The Geology and Geophysics Advisory Committee’s remit embraced both the work programme of the IGS and the research that the NERC would fund in the universities. The committee’s members were mostly external academics and representatives of industry and Government departments. They made no significant amendment to the work of the Survey. By 1970, the advisory committees’ job was done and they were all disbanded. The NERC then introduced a dual committee structure of Preparatory Groups and Advisory Committees to replace it.

The Preparatory Groups (or Prep Groups), of which there were five, were committees of Council and consisted of Council members and officials. Their purpose was to act as intermediaries between Council and both the universities and institutes on matters relating to policy. They were also to investigate policy issues before they went to full Council. Prep Groups were the parents to the Visiting Groups, which were set up to audit the workings of the institutes. In establishing the Prep Groups in this manner, the NERC internalised the process by which it defined and implemented policy in a way that had never before been practised, in either the DSIR or its predecessors.

The second element in this dual arrangement was the Advisory Committee. The one formed for the Institute of Geological Sciences was modelled on the Geological Survey Board, in terms of composition, consisting of members from industry, Government and academia. This committee advised on the work programme and provided links with the external community, but there was no link between the Advisory Committee and Council either through the Prep Group or in any other way. This effectively isolated and emasculated the Advisory Committee, which gradually withered away. Most BGS staff were not even aware that it existed.

Even though the Geological Survey had been a semi-independent body for one hundred and twenty years, overseen by a non-executive board for over sixty of them, the sudden and decisive loss of its identity in 1965 was not immediately felt. At first, the new research council had to work hard to justify its existence. The Institute of Geological Sciences, being the largest component of the NERC by a long way, was important to the NERC. The Director, Kingsley Dunham, worked together with the Secretary to NERC Council, Mr Ray Beverton, to enlarge and diversify the work programme. Staff numbers steadily grew, and more than doubled in the first ten years. By 1979, however, these good times were over.

Indications of the direction that change was likely to take after 1979 had already come with the publication, in 1971, of Lord Rothschild’s report, The Organisation and Management of Government Research and Development (Cmnd 4814). This report made radical proposals for the funding of civil science, requiring the transfer of significant sums of Science Budget from research institutes to customer departments (see Chapter 4).

The Science Budget, sometimes called the Science Vote, is the allocation of funds made by Government directly to its research organisations. After 1965, the Institute of Geological Sciences received its share of the Science Budget through the NERC. The funds came as a general grant with no instructions from Central Government on the detail of how it was to be spent. Overall direction on spending was provided by the research councils’ Royal Charter. Lord Rothschild believed that there should be more accountability in the way the Science Budget was spent. Thus, he proposed transferring some of it from the research councils to Government departments for them to spend, initially, with the research councils on research that met their specific needs. As a direct consequence of this, the research councils would receive less Science Budget than they needed to pay for all their staff, laboratory facilities and the research that they sponsored. The gap would have to be filled by the research councils winning commissions for research from Government departments and elsewhere.

By 1976, when the transfer of funding that was recommended by Lord Rothschild had taken place, the proportion of the Survey’s income that came from the Science Budget had fallen from nearly 100% to 25%. Nearly all the rest came from a small number of very large commissions from Government departments, which now dominated the work of the Survey. The full impact of this new arrangement, however, did not begin to be felt until the policies introduced by the Conservative Government elected in 1979 began to bite. With new ideas for managing the economy and new attitudes to public spending and state ownership, the policies of this Government were to make life uncomfortable for the British Geological Survey for the next eighteen years.

In 1980 the senior management structure of the NERC was changed. The power and authority of the post of Chairman of NERC Council was increased by changing it from part time to full time. In addition, Dr John Bowman replaced Mr Beverton, who had been Secretary to Council since it was founded. The new NERC Chairman and Secretary, reacting positively to the new direction provided by Government, began to question some of the old certainties. The first challenge to the hegemony of the IGS had come a little earlier, in the form of the Lucas Report of 1976 (see Chapter 4), in which institute directors were criticised for showing more loyalty to their institutes than to the NERC as a whole. The next came with the report of the NERC Visiting Group which carried out its investigation of the Institute of Geological Sciences between 1982 and 1984. A far more serious challenge was presented by the first NERC Corporate Plan in 1985 (see Chapter 3). The mutual lack of trust between NERC HQ and the Survey, which had first surfaced after the Lucas Report, came to a climax in 1985, when relations between the Survey and its parent body were worse than at any time in the previous twenty years.

There is one last event of significance: the move of the Survey headquarters from London to Keyworth, a village a few miles south of Nottingham. Full details of this remarkable exercise are contained in Dennis Hackett’s account, Our corporate history. Key events affecting the British Geological Survey, 1967–1998. He records the discovery of the site in 1975, a teacher-training college that was about to be made redundant, its purchase the next year and the subsequent transfer to Keyworth of hundreds of staff from several offices in London and Leeds. The first staff to occupy the site came in October 1976 and the last transfer was in December 1989. In all, the cost of the exercise, including the purchase price, the construction of new buildings and the transfer of staff and goods to Keyworth was in excess of £24 million.

When Keyworth became the official HQ of the BGS in 1985, this was the culmination of twenty-two years of effort. The original idea came from the Cabinet Committee on Population and Employment, which, in 1962, endorsed a new drive to disperse Government staff from London. A survey was set up under Sir Gilbert Fleming, who recommended in 1963 that 70 staff of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (excluding the Museum) should move from London to a new locality in the south-east of England. The story of how it came that the Survey moved to Nottinghamshire is well told by Dennis Hackett. The period of the move was turbulent, to say the least, and much pain and anguish were suffered by staff who were forced to move there. The outcome, however, was an HQ complex that is as well equipped as any Geological Survey in the world and contains adequate room for expansion, should that become necessary (Plate 1).

By 1985, the year of the Survey’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary, the headquarters had officially been transferred to Keyworth from the Geological Museum in Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London. There were, at that time, two offices in Edinburgh and one in Wallingford, and two London offices had yet to close. There were small district offices in Newcastle, Exeter and Aberystwyth and an office in Belfast for the staff working on the contract to the Northern Ireland Government. In addition, there were geomagnetic monitoring stations at Hartland in Devon, Eskdalemuir in southern Scotland and Lerwick in Shetland.