What next: the future of the Geological Survey

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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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XVIII What next: the future of the Geological Survey. Chapter-head sketch by Robery Geary.

XVIII What next: the future of the Geological Survey[edit]

It would be a bold prophet who would venture to forecast the next hundred years of the Geological Survey, but Malcolm Brown, the present Director, made a brave attempt in an interview published in The British Geologist in June 1984.

Some things seem to be self evident. No advanced state can reverse the development of a century and a half and dispense with the maintenance of an archive of national geological data. The experience of the last decade gives no encouragement at all to the 'Rothschild Principle' in this field. The concept of a national data-bank maintained at second hand by a quasi-official research council on a repayment basis is surely too ludicrous to be acceptable. Or is it? Myopic politicians of any political persuasion can, as we have seen, make themselves believe anything.

The dangers of the present situation are now becoming apparent to those outside the Survey. Questions have been asked in Parliament and a leading article in Nature (11 October 1984) has pointed out the absurdity of the situation and suggested that NERC should be abolished and that the Survey should be returned to the Civil Service, possibly with the Department of the Environment.

If this solution were to be adopted it is probable that the organization would decline to a size between the post-war optimum and the pre-war total of less than one hundred.

The rapid expansion and diversification of the Survey in the sixties and seventies was facilitated (or hindered, according to your viewpoint) by the inevitable fact that the Heads of most of the new units and divisions had come from the small original cadre of field staff. As a result the directorate, in spite of inevitable differences, was a group with a mutually agreed vision of what the Survey could do and how to do it!

The mid-eighties will see a new situation, as the post-war 'Mafia' will all be gone and the new 'managers' may not have the same rapport, having come up through a variety of disciplines. It seems likely that the administration will be more formal — more like the management in a moderate-sized public company — and though future Directors, if NERC allows the post to remain, will be less likely to feel that a brotherhood of cronies is ganging up on them, there may be some loss of management cohesion.

There are, however, grounds for hope. The end to the traumatic relocation process and the centralization of the greater part of the staff at Keyworth, should bring about a degree of common purpose which will be greatly needed in the next few years.

The new emphasis on a readily accessible information system, which will bring the whole archive of a century and a half of geological observation at the touch of a keyboard, must be of inestimable value to all concerned with geology in the United Kingdom. It may be heretical to suggest that the reactionary field geologist will still want to rout about in old notebooks and field slips to make sure that he or she has got everything!

Given any reasonable support from the national research budget, the new 'regional survey' approach to the traditional mapping programme will enable the basic archive, the geological map, to be updated and perhaps even completed, more economically.

The less optimistic side of the coin, however, must be in the context of public relations. Keyworth is a pleasant place to work but is very inaccessible to those based in the London area — a visit will take, at best, four hours travel time. The old adage 'out of sight, out of mind' is unhappily still true.

The loss of the Geological Museum in 1985 will further weaken contact with people in London and it is to be hoped that the metropolitan office, or outpost, which is promised, will be sufficiently staffed and have such effective communications with Keyworth, that it will be able to provide a useful presence in the capital. If it is reduced, as pressure from Swindon might well dictate, to a clerk and a telephone, the last chance to influence the users of the National Geosciences Data Bank will be lost. In the final analysis the future of the Survey as an independent organization depends on its ability to sell itself, and in the effort to influence the holders of the purse-strings it will need all the help it can get from its friends in Government and industry.

We can only say, as did Bailey in his 1952 Volume, long live the Geological Survey — and keep our fingers crossed!