Image — 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.

Chapter 16 Image[edit]

For most of the 1980s the senior management of the BGS had been preoccupied with dealing with continuously falling funding from Government and policy initiatives from NERC HQ that were perceived not to be in the best interests of the BGS. The two directors who followed Malcolm Brown were short-term appointments, but their time was taken up almost entirely in dealing with big issues including the fall-out from the 1982–84 Visiting Group, the NERC Corporate Plan of 1985, and Butler. Matters relating to the everyday management of the Survey effectively stagnated. By the end of the decade these crises were over. The PES awards of 1988 and 1989, the establishment of the Programme Board and the Price Waterhouse report all ensured that the 1990s were not going to be a re-run of the previous decade.

When Peter Cook took over from Geoff Larminie as Director in March 1990, there was a prospect of financial stability, at least for a few years, but the need for change identified by the Charging Review ensured that little else was to be stable. The whole of the 1990s was to be characterised by a continuous process of change.

It actually began as soon as the pressure on funding was removed with the announcement of the first PES award in 1988, but Peter Cook accelerated it once he had settled down in the post. Directorate meetings that had been held every two months during Malcolm Brown’s time, slipping to quarterly during the period that Geoff Larminie was in the chair, were racked up to monthly in 1990 and they were invariably whole-day affairs. During the crises precipitated by the Efficiency Scrutiny and Prior Options the Keyworth-based Assistant Directors often met for short meetings between the scheduled ones. An enormous number of issues were taken up, debated and acted upon. Those that relate to the Survey’s commercial development and to the Core Programme have been dealt with elsewhere, but there were many that had an impact on the public profile of the Survey.

The question was asked by the Price Waterhouse consultants, why it was that the United States Geological Survey was well known in the USA and the British Geological Survey had almost no place in the public consciousness within the United Kingdom? There is no simple answer to this question. The USGS has a high profile from its work on earthquakes and volcanoes and it is funded to disseminate its research findings either free or at minimal cost. None of these apply to the UK. But these are not the only factors that have a bearing on public awareness and Peter Cook was determined to find which were. At his first Directorate meeting after taking office he declared that he wished to see the BGS adopt a more positive and up-front stance in the area of public relations and soon afterwards asked for a job description to be drawn up for an information or press officer. The post was advertised and filled in April 1991.

The first serious attempt to open the BGS to the public was the series of open days arranged in October 1985 to celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary. Another open day was arranged in 1986, at which it is reputed that 12 000 visitors came to Keyworth. The cost of these events was considerable, but the benefits are particularly difficult to quantify. They were not continued at Keyworth, but the Edinburgh office has regularly arranged open days since then. Nowadays they tend to be in association with organisations, such as Scottish National Heritage, which organises a Scottish Science Week, usually in September each year.

Alternative ways of presenting the BGS to the general public have been sought and many tried. Each year staff at the Keyworth office take part in the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Science and Technology week, setting up stalls for school parties. Independently of this, since 1985, there have been regular organised tours of the site for visiting parties from all sorts of organisations including some with no direct geological association. Mostly, these tours are organised on request. However, in the early 1990s the BGS took stands at various national events, such as the Agricultural Show at Stoneleigh and the Green Show as part of the campaign to heighten public awareness of geology. The conference facilities at Keyworth are from time to time hired out or loaned to external organisations, such as the Geological Society, and site tours are often arranged in association with these events. In 1994 and 1995 the BGS, acting on behalf of the NERC, became one of three UK sites to receive telepresence broadcasts from JASON projects. They were organised by the American oceanographer Dr Robert Ballard to raise scientific awareness among children, particularly in relation to the potential that science offers for careers. Live satellite TV broadcasts were arranged from Belize in 1994 and Hawaii the next year. The images were projected onto a giant screen in the De la Beche lecture theatre and were seen by over 2500 children in 1994 and 5300 in 1995.

On appointment, the Press Officer, Hilary Heason, was tasked to heighten the BGS profile in all branches of the media. Steps were taken independently by the Global Seismology Group in Edinburgh to make it the first point of reference for the media in the event of a newsworthy earthquake happening anywhere in the world. They were highly successful in this, but there is a cost: staff have to be on standby twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week in order to be consulted and they require very efficient technical backup.

One highly successful early initiative of the press officer was the launch of Earthwise, the official BGS magazine. It is aimed at the lay reader, but is about research carried out by the BGS. The first issue was in September 1991 and it is published twice a year. The print run is normally 5000, of which around 4000 are distributed externally. Recent issues have covered themes such as new perspectives on the past, geohazards, sustainability, minerals and the BGS in Europe. The magazine is highly popular. Additional printings of some issues have been ordered by educational establishments to support their course work. A similar magazine, Earthworks, produced by the BGS originally for the Overseas Development Administration and now for its successor, the Department for International Development, covers geoscientific research carried out for them overseas.

A significant development in January 1992 was the start of the BGS Lecture Series. This was to be an annual event, held in both Keyworth and Edinburgh, at which a distinguished speaker would talk on a subject that was of broad interest, but not necessarily on geology. The speaker at the first lecture was Professor Brian Hoskins from Reading University, talking on ‘Climate change — lessons from the past’. Audiences have consistently filled the De la Beche lecture theatre in Keyworth. Among the speakers have been Sir Crispin Tickell, Sir John Cadogan and Sir Robert May.

A sequence of promotional events began with the Minerals Industry Forum in 1992 at which the BGS presented its research to invited members of relevant industries and sought comment from them on how appropriate it was to their needs. Others followed, targeting the petroleum industries, the local authorities, the water industry and the sector concerned with contaminated land. These were multipurpose events, partly marketing, partly consultation and partly publicity, and they were difficult to balance. Accusations from attendees that they had been brought to the BGS only to be subjected to marketing hype were heard, despite strenuous efforts to minimise this aspect. Also in 1992, a list of major international and national conferences was drawn up at which it was thought that a BGS presence would bring benefit to the organisation.

The university link scheme was started in 1991. In it one member of staff was identified for each university to act as the channel of communication with it. There were several reasons for doing this. The financial pressures on the BGS during the 1980s had led to a much reduced level of recruitment, compared with previous decades, and in many geology departments the BGS was no longer viewed as a potential employer for their graduates. The scheme was expected to provide a two-way flow of information about potential recruits and recruitment opportunities, but, like many of the other initiatives taken at this time, the university link scheme was, as much as anything else, about raising awareness about the BGS and developing an image.

In September 1995 EuroGeoSurveys was founded, managed by a Director-General in Brussels, the first of whom, Richard Annells, was on secondment from the BGS. This organisation was formed, largely as a result of initiatives taken by Peter Cook, to represent the interests of geoscience and the Geological Surveys of the European Union. Membership was deliberately exclusive to EU member states and Norway. It was meant to be both a lobby group and functional. Several working groups were set up within it and they put in bids for EU funding to carry out multinational research projects. One of these, the Geoscience Electronic Information Exchange System (GEIXS), managed by the BGS, established a Europe-wide metadata service for geoscientific information, which has acted as a model for such services within member states but has also been adopted for other types of metadata and used outside the EU. In 2000, years after completion of this project, the BGS manager of GEIXS was still receiving requests from overseas to give talks on it. At the same time as the founding of EuroGeoSurveys, the Western European Geological Surveys (WEGS) was re-formed into the Forum for European Geological Surveys (FOREGS) representing all European Geological Surveys.

Perhaps the biggest venture in raising public awareness came in the summer of 1993, when Peter Cook expressed his interest in the BGS launching a series of popular publications. The Core Programme Task Force, set up by the first Programme Board, and Price Waterhouse had rejected any idea that the BGS should enter the high-volume, low-price market. Both recognised that the BGS was not equipped to initiate and sustain a mass sales campaign, nor was this close to the Survey’s core business. Both groups, however, added a caveat that there may be overriding reasons that justify doing it. Peter Cook did believe that a popular publications series was potentially a money-spinner. He also considered that the presentation of geology to the general public through a series of popular publications fitted the new NERC attitude to public understanding of science that had emerged after the publication of the White Paper Realising our Potential in 1993. This, effectively, fitted the caveat and justified starting the programme. The Programme Board agreed.

In all, 42 books, leaflets, posters, maps and information cards were published in the Earthwise Publications series up to March 2000. Although total sales in the period up to the end of the 1999/2000 financial year had reached 26 000 for these publications this fell short of expectation and hardly justified the description ‘popular publications’. Policy was changed in 1999. Instead of publishing hard-copy outputs, it was considered potentially more fruitful to use the World Wide Web to pursue the BGS policy on public understanding of science.

A step in this direction had already been taken with the establishment of free downloads of various BGS books on the BGS website after its relaunch in October 1997. The purpose of this policy initiative was to put into the public domain, at minimal cost to the BGS, information that the geoscience community could freely use. In the main, the publications were concerned with the establishment of standards which the national and international geoscience community can follow. Among these is the BGS Lexicon, which is a database of all the strati-graphical terms used on BGS maps. About 1500 were fully defined following the criteria laid down by the North American Code on Stratigraphic Classification and Nomenclature. This can be interrogated online. The most popular of all the titles that are downloaded as PDF (Portable Document Format) files is the scheme for symbols and ornaments used on BGS maps. Other publications include four volumes on rock classification. These were developed from the dictionaries that were drawn up for the digital-map-production system. They were based on international standards where they were available. For some rocks, metamorphics, for example, the international committees responsible for setting standards had not finished their work when the BGS needed the standards. The Survey had to set its own. This should be salutary to them. Worldwide, technology is making a demand for standards in geoscience and the researchers developing computer applications cannot wait years for the committees to finish their ponderous deliberations. The BGS scheme for metamorphic rocks is almost certainly one of many that have been developed to fill the vacuum and could, because of its availability on the Web, become a de facto world standard. Other reports available on the website are a series endorsed by the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society on regional standard stratigraphical classification schemes, and Holostrat, a discussion centre for British chronostratigraphy. This last is the only item available that has been devised with the Internet in mind. Two other publications have been produced in collaboration with others. Environmental geology in land use planning was devised in collaboration with the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. Dealing with radon emissions in respect to new development was drawn up in collaboration with the Buildings Research Establishment, Land Use Consultants and the National Radiological Protection Board. Earthwise and Earthworks magazines and the BGS Annual Report are also available from the website. Downloads of all titles in the three years up to September 2000 exceeded 10 000, running at about 125 a week and rising.