R&D Programme — a geological survey in transition

From Earthwise
Jump to navigation Jump to search
From: Allen, P M. 2003. A geological survey in transition. British Geological Survey Occasional Publication No. 1. Keyworth:British Geological Survey.

Chapter 13 The R&D Programme[edit]

Butler recommended that there should be a Science Programme alongside the Core and Responsive programmes. His Study Group considered that it was essential for the BGS to undertake some basic research in order to contribute to the understanding of the systems that are studied in the Core and Responsive programmes. This followed on from their view that the BGS should be seen as the provider of an essential service, needing research to maintain its quality, rather than as a research institute providing a service as a side-line. They suggested that the programme should be funded in part from NERC research grants in competition with the academic sector and in part from the surplus generated in the Responsive Programme. They were strongly of the view that the Science Programme should not be funded out of the budget for the Core Programme.

The Programme Board did not endorse this funding mechanism and it was never implemented. Instead, the Programme Board instituted a Research and Development Programme as the third programme and allocated around £400 000 to it in its first year.

There was never a single view on what the R&D Programme was meant to achieve. There were those who saw it as a vehicle from which to carry out, pure, curiosity-driven research. Others, seeing the Core Programme become strictly strategic and driven by measurable output targets, saw the R&D Programme as the only place within which to carry out research to keep up-to-date the BGS research and laboratory capability. This second view was easy to justify. When the BGS Directorate came to restructure the existing Science Budget Programme and divide it among the six Core Programme elements in the Briden-Larminie paper, in anticipation of the announcement from the House of Commons in November 1988, it was by no means evident where all the projects approved by the Chief Scientists should go. The R&D Programme was established then, taking in a miscellaneous collection of projects, some of which would have been homeless without it. Among them were projects carrying out research in analytical methodology, for example. This sort of research, though essential to maintain capability, did not fit easily into the structure for a Core Programme that essentially contained surveying activities.

The Programme Board, itself, was never quite sure about the function of this programme. They vacillated about where capability research should be carried out: as an integral part of the Core Programme, or outside it. One year, they even challenged the use of the word capability to describe any part of the research programme. Their indecision and lack of vision for the R&D Programme made it vulnerable.

The Butler funding model was not implemented, in part because the NERC did not allow its institutes to bid against universities for research funds (though the converse was not true). This meant that the Butler Science Programme could easily become a collection of research projects carried out entirely by universities. The only sensible way forward was to do the exact opposite to what Butler proposed. A portion of the BGS Science Budget was put to one side for the R&D Programme. Although it was meant for BGS staff to bid into there was nothing in NERC’s rules to prevent the academic community bidding into it. The Director of Earth Sciences, himself, saw the R&D Programme as an additional funding source for academics and a struggle began between him and Peter Cook, the BGS Director, over who should control the R&D Programme — the BGS or a committee of the NERC Council, the Earth Sciences Committee.

In 1990/91, the first year under Programme Board control, there were 20 projects in the R&D Programme. The Directorate had agreed that the size of the programme should be equivalent to 10% of the Responsive Programme. Basing the calculation on the previous year’s Responsive Programme, a limit was set of 23 staff years of effort for 1990/91. An invitation had gone out to staff in July 1989 to submit bids. Bids were required for new projects, as well as ones that had been put into the programme the year before, when there was no other home for them. They were advised that proposals should have a bearing on Core activities and be designed to pursue basic research ideas necessary to underpin future developments in the Core Programme. Alternatively, they could follow up ideas that may have originated in CR projects within which there had been no scope to develop them further. This last issue satisfied a sore point that had been with staff for years. A total of 104 proposals were submitted, an illustration of the fecundity of the imagination of BGS staff. A short list of 33 proposals was drawn up for full costing. The Chief Scientists, acting as a review committee, reduced it to 20 projects, which the Programme Board, eventually, approved. They fell into five categories:

  1. support for Individual Merit Promotees (IMPs)
  2. support for staff with the potential to become IMPs
  3. broadly-based projects which provided support for a range of Science Budget and commissioned research programmes
  4. projects derived from commissioned work which could not be pursued anywhere else
  5. development projects aimed at enhancing an existing BGS system as a basis for future commissioned research.

In addition, there were jointly funded CEC (European Union) projects to which BGS had an ongoing commitment. The programme was a rich mixture of speculative science, underpinning investigations and development of technical and scientific capability. It had good prospects, but politics killed it.

First, the Director of Earth Sciences insisted that it was externally peer reviewed. This was handled first by a committee of NERC Council, the Earth Sciences Committee, and later by its replacement, the Earth Sciences Technology Board (ESTB). As pressure mounted on the BGS Programme Board to make the programme available to open competition the decision was taken to close it down. The 1994/1995 financial year was its last. Next year, 1995/96, the components of the programme became integrated into the Core Programme and external peer review ceased. At first, the words R&D were retained to describe this part of each element of the Core Programme. Later, they were to go and whatever R&D was left was disguised as development of capability.

The loss of the R&D Programme was a severe blow to the BGS. There were few links between the six main elements of the Core Programme. The R&D Programme, while it lasted, was the only BGS-wide integrated scientific research programme and it did offer the opportunity for the development of the science and technology for the corporate benefit. Once it went, the proportion of funds devoted to R&D gradually reduced. At its highest it constituted, by definition, 10% of the value of the Responsive Programme, which translated into around 7% of the total scientific effort in the BGS. The conventional wisdom is that an organisation needs to devote around 10% of its scientific effort to R&D to maintain its long-term viability. Even counting Science-Budget-funded projects, particularly IT-oriented ones, within the Core Programme that were unashamedly R&D and not necessarily described under the capability heading, the total R&D effort in the BGS never reached 10%.

There were other losses. The idealistic approach taken by the Directorate in defining the first programme included one idea, whose importance exceeded all the others: that staff who have worked for prolonged periods on commissioned research should be given the opportunity to develop their science outside the Commissioned Programme, when they are inhibited from doing so within it. The opportunity to implement this was lost. The career development of staff with the potential to become IMPs was lost, as was a readily identifiable and accountable source of co-funding for CEC projects. All of these losses became irritations among staff and were to be raised time and again after 1994/95 eventually to become influential in thinking during the major overhaul of the organisation undertaken in 1999.