The Mandarins: those set in authority over us

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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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IV The Mandarins: those set in authority over us. Chapter-head sketch by Robery Geary.

IV The Mandarins: those set in authority over us[edit]

As described in the first chapter, the earliest days of the Geological Survey were as a department of the Ordnance Survey, but it took De la Beche only seven years to achieve the independence of his new group and in 1845 the Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland emerged.

This new organization was put under the control of the First Commissioners of Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works and Buildings and was a purely civilian outfit — under the Master-General of Ordnance it had been part of a military organization and field surveyors had to wear a uniform of blue serge with brass buttons and a top hat.

Under the apparently beneficent reign of the Commissioners the Survey grew, particularly with the development of the School of Mines in the Jermyn Street Museum in 1851.In 1845 Ramsay had six field geologists in Great Britain, James had five in Ireland.At this time the field staff were still about the same strength as ten years earlier, the only addition being two men in Ireland.

In 1854 the whole of De La Beche's empire — Geological Survey, School of Mines, Museum of Practical Geology, Mining Record Office — was transferred from the Commissioners to the newly formed Department of Science and Art which had been established under the Board of Trade following the great 1851 Exhibition. As usual, this change was unwelcome to De La Beche but his reluctance was mild compared with that of his successor, Murchison, when the Dept of Science and Art was transferred from the Board of Trade to the Education Department of the Privy Council. Murchison realised, and resented, the fact that he no longer would have direct access to a Minister of State (the President of the Board of Trade) but would have to deal with an intermediary — the Inspector-General of Schools and Museums. Murchison's resentment is understandable a century and a half later when we compare the British system, where the Director of the British Geological Survey is responsible to a Research Council, with that in France where the Director of the Bureau de Research Geologique et Miniere reports directly to a Minister.

During Murchison's long tenure as Director General — 16 years there were no further changes in the administrative set-up, probably because he was such a major figure in the social and scientific establishment. On his death in 1871 however, the Royal School of Mines was removed from his successor, Ramsay's, control, though it remained in Jermyn Street for a time, which in the case of Mining Geology stretched to nineteen years. Ramsay remained in charge of the Museum and the Mining Records Office as well as the Survey. When Geikie took over as Director General in 1882 the Department of Science and Art still reigned as it did till 1899 when it was succeeded by the Board of Education. In 1883 the Mining Record Office was transferred to the Home Office and the pattern for the next century was set, with the Museum and the Survey in joint harness. Almost the first thing the new Board of Education had to do was to set up a committee of enquiry into the joint organisation! In 1905 the Geological Survey of Ireland was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland and the sixty-year link with the Surveys of England and Wales and of Scotland was broken (see p.20).

In 1915 and 1916 the wartime government made Orders in Council setting up a Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to prepare for the post-war development of British industry which had proved, even then, to have fallen behind the German and American standards. The new department was concerned at first only with Fuel Research, but in 1918 the National Physical Laboratory, founded in 1900, was transferred to it.

One of the wartime committees set up by the Ministry of Reconstruction was concerned with the coal resources of the country and this Coal Conservation Committee soon came to the conclusion that the standard of geological mapping of the coalfields was, to say the least, unsatisfactory. So deplorable was the lack of adequate data that it submitted an interim report on the situation to the Prime Minister. What Lloyd George thought of this we do not know — he certainly did not mention it in his Memoirs — but the recommendation of the Committee that the Geological Survey and Museum should be transferred from the Board of Education to the new D.S.I.R. was speedily accepted and the transfer took place on 1st November 1919.

D.S.I.R. was a very pragmatic organization. Expanding rapidly in the post-war years, it realised that to control its numerous interests it had eventually fourteen establishments, as well as many cooperative Research Associations — it needed outside assessors and adopted the sensible system of Boards to control the activities of its institutes. nstitutes. Since the Wharton Committee had investigated Geikie's administration in 1900 a Consultative Committee, later called the Committee of Advice, had met annually to consider the progress of the Survey, but it was a toothless body with no power. The new Geological Survey Board was intended to be, and was, a much more incisive body and the Director's reports and proposed programmes were subjected to some scrutiny.

This suzerainty was not without its advantages, however, for the influence of the Boards's advice on D.S.I.R. was considerable and, for example, the intensive revision of coalfield geology started in 1921 was possible because the Board was able to convince D.S.I.R. that an increase in staff was essential and sixteen new geologist posts were authorised.

Two other recommendations by the Coal Conservation Committee were less rapidly implemented. The first, that there should be compulsory notification of all boreholes and shafts for minerals over 100 ft (30 m) in depth, was enacted in 1926 but it was not till after World War II that the Survey had power to commission boreholes for geological purposes.

The era in D.S.I.R. is remembered as a kind of golden age by those who lived through it. The useful intermediary of the Geological Survey Board gave the Director an authority to whom he could refer his programme and problems, while the Board, consisting of outside geologists of distinction, including academics and industrialists, had the confidence of the Department, which was headed by a series of distinguished scientists. Bailey (p. 183) records, as the most serious difficulty, the question of charging for services rendered — a practice common, of course, to most of the other component parts of D.S.I.R., such as N.P.L., the Govt. Chemist, Building Research Station, and so on. His recent successors would wish that their problems were as easily resolved.

In 1962 the Conservative Government, concerned about the increasing cost of civil scientific research anddevelopment, appointed a Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Burke Trend to consider whether any changes were necessary in the organization of government scientific research. In the seventeen years since the end of World War II expenditure had risen from £6.6 m to £151.6 m, a twenty-three fold increase. Much of this was due to heavy spending on Atomic Energy research, but it is of interest that the costs of the Medical Research Council had risen twenty fold, those of the Agricultural Research Council by twenty-two times and the universities by sixteen times, while D.S.I.R. had risen by only a factor of nine. Nevertheless it was on D.S.I.R., as the only Civil Service research organisation, that the Trend Committee zeroed in, concluding that it should be divided into three parts — a Science Research Council, a Natural Resources Research Council and an Industrial Research & Development Authority. With a logic difficult to follow now it recommended that one of the six divisions of the Science Research Council would cover 'Earth Sciences' (including seismology, geology and geography) while the Geological Survey 'forms an essential part of the (Natural Resources) Council's field of concern'.

It is said that one reason for the break-up of D.S.I.R. was the position of its largest component, the National Physical Laboratory. It, by its constitution, was partly under the control of the Royal Society, which caused some duplication in administrative matters.

Before a decision was taken on Trend's report the Douglas-Home government was defeated in the election of 1964 and the Labour party took over. Fuelled by the 'white heat of the technological revolution', as enunciated by Harold Wilson, the new Prime Minister, the government produced a Science and Technology Bill which partly implemented Trend's ideas, by dismembering D.S.I.R. and establishing new Science and Natural Environment Research Councils.

In the debate on the Queen's Speech at the opening of the Parliamentary session in the autum of 1964, Michael Stewart, Secretary of State for Education and Science, said the proposed reorganisation was in no way a reflection on the work or usefulness of D.S.I.R. but its very success had resulted in such a vast expansion in the field of science and industry that it had become necessary to make new arrangements.

The negotiations leading up to the new Bill had involved discussions with the directors of the component bodies of D.S.I.R. and Sir James Stubblefield, who was Director of the Survey at the time, recalls that he was asked about which of Trend's alternatives would be best. At the time he and his colleagues felt that NERC was the better option,but at the next Geologists' Dinner Elkington, Establishments Officer of D.S.I.R., said, in a valedictory speech, 'God help you'. Once again at least one observer could see the writing on the wall.

The Science and Technology Bill was given the Royal Assent on 28th March, 1965 and on that day D.S.I.R. ceased to exist. The Geological Survey and Museum was transferred for a short time to the direct administration of the Department of Education and Science, until 1st June when the Natural Environment Research Council came into being. On that date the existing staff were seconded to the new Council but technically remained Civil Servants. In 1967 however, they received letters from the Secretary of NERC offering them transfer to staff of the Council on exactly the same terms as if they had remained in DES — and indicating that if they refused they would be returned to DES to whatever vacancy arose. After some hesitation and debate virtually the whole staff accepted the transfer terms and from the end of 1967 ceased to be Civil Servants.

The new research council was inaugurated on 30 June 1965 and consisted of a part-time Chairman, Sir Graham Sutton, F.R.S., a distinguished meterologist, fifteen members, four assessors appointed by Government departments — and a full-time secretary, R J H Beverton, a marine zoologist of repute. Of the members four had an earth-sciences background. It is of interest that though Sutton was an ex-Director of the Meteorological Office, that organization had been able to escape the NERC net, to which it had been assigned, by using its influence with the Ministry of Defence!

The first NERC annual report included the Charter, which among other platitudes promised 'to encourage and support by any means research by any person or body in the earth sciences and ecology … .', and a statement about the Council's objectives made much of the contribution to these aims of the study of geology and geophysics.

To assist the Council in the formulation of policy it appointed five Advisory Committees, one covering Geology and Geophysics and comprising about twenty members and assessors, mainly academics but with representatives of industry and of every government department with any conceivable interest in geological work. A committee on hydrology also had some geological participants.

For the first five years of the new dispensation the relations between the Council and IGS were fairly harmonious; the new organisation, with a part-time Chairman, was engaged in getting its own house in order and the component bodies were largely left to continue on the lines to which they were accustomed. In 1970, however, because new developments in the sciences concerned were causing overlaps of interest between the advisory committees it was decided to change the system. The Committees were abolished and replaced by five 'Preparatory Groups', each consisting of five or six Council members, plus officials, who were to conduct thorough investigations of matters of policy before they were brought before the full Council. In addition, Institute Advisory Committees, consisting of members from Government Departments, Industry and the Universities were set up to advise Directors on the direction of research and to provide liaison with other researchers and the users of the output — but with no access to NERC. There was also instituted a Working Party on Computerisation, and the first mention of Visiting Groups, defined in the 1970/71 Council report as 'Small numbers of Council members, with one or two people from outside, who would spend a day or more in Institutes talking to individual members of staff about their work.'

In two years, therefore, the Council had removed a simple two-stage Control of Institutes and substituted a morass of advisory and inquisitive bodies between the Institute Directors and the Council. Whatever the good intentions, the characteristic British system of 'divide and rule' had been brought to this area of government science.

The most notable effects were soon to be seen. Visiting groups appeared at not less than 5 year intervals — and as there were different groups for each IGS activity this meant a continuous procession, each of whom had to be provided with voluminous dossiers on the unit or units which they were to visit. Each Group insisted on interviewing every member of staff, down to messengers and typists, and as some consisted of ten or more prestigious academics or captains of industry, their 'Star Chamber' interrogations of junior scientists, however well meant, were traumatic in the extreme.

Advisory Committees, each of twenty or more members, met twice a year and again generated vast dossiers about every conceivable facet of the Institute's work. Without any teeth to implement their recommendations these Committees became increasingly frustrating to all concerned — often they backed the Director's proposals but NERC paid no attention to them.

The 'Prep Groups' consisting of Council members had, in theory at least, a chance of influencing policy. Again, each of their meetings, when perhaps three Council members (and about six NERC HQ officials) confronted the Director and some of his Assistant Directors, generated thick dossiers, and such meetings took place twice or more each year.

Apart from the very large proportion of senior scientists' time spent in preparing the documentation for these endless meetings, the cost in forests destroyed and the expense of mounting the meeting — amounting for each event, it was once calculated, to more than a Scientific Officer's salary for a year — there was the frustration at the absence of tangible results. The Visiting Group reports were kept secret, though bits were apparently revealed, like Holy Writ in the Middle Ages, to the Director. Middle management, as Unit Heads were now described, did not know what their juniors had said, or what the Groups had decided, and the system gave an excellent opportunity for disaffected or inadequate staff to sow the seeds of distrust.

The 'Prep Group' recommendations were divulged only to Council (and to the Council officials, who thus became better informed than Directors). In the case of the Earth Sciences it appeared that the overwhelming biological bias of Council negated the influence, however benign, of the geoscience members, and it became apparent that IGS was, so far as NERC was concerned, a useful milch cow and no more. This attitude was accelerated by the so-called 'Rothschild' reforms which came two years after the NERC reorganisation.