What Research does Society need / want? A reflection on cutting public science institutions

From 1997 to 2002 I was president of the Royal Geological and Mining Society of the Netherlands (KNGMG, www.kngmg.nl). One of my tasks was to present the Society’s highest scientific award, the “Van Waterschoot van der Gracht Medal”[1] to a worthy recipient each year.

In 2000, the recipient of this medal was Dr. Franz Kockel, a spirited German geologist who had just retired after having spent his entire career with the Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe / BGR, i.e. the German Federal Geological Survey in Hannover.

I reread my citation for Dr. Kockel and I believe that it is as relevant today as it was 13 years ago and so I have decided to reproduce it here with minor edits. I think it relevant because of what has been happening the last two years in Canada, where public science institutions are slashed in an unprecedented manner at the hands of the Conservative Harper government. These cuts are hardly based on evidence and they are so destructive that I believe it will take us decades to restore Canada’s public knowledge base.

The speech reproduced here is a justification of publicly funded research institutions as distinctly different from universities or from industry, driven by what society needs in the long term, but not by what society (or, as the Canadian government phrases it “business”) wants (in the short term).

I have added one paragraph, printed in bold


Dear Dr. Kockel,

(I skip the intro of the speech, where I welcome everyone)

In presenting you with the Van Waterschoot van der Gracht medal, I am taking the liberty to reflect on the type of organization that made your contribution to geoscience possible: a geological survey organization.

You are a representative of those in our geoscience community who work to serve the public. This role is distinctly different from those in industry or in Academia. The resource industry focuses on exploration and production of earth materials with the objective of making a profit on its discoveries. But the resource industry cannot be effective and efficient if it relies solely on its own investigations; it needs unbiased, spatially consistent regional information in addition to its own, location-specific information. Because only sharing knowledge enables the growth of knowledge, industry is aware that it must share information with public institutions and it does share its proprietary information (cores, logs, samples, seismic sections) in various ways with public survey institutions.

The role of geological surveys is also very different from that of academia, although they are both public institutions. The justification of university is the production of highly qualified personnel (graduates) and, in tandem, new knowledge. New knowledge produced by universities generally comes about in a different way than in a survey environment. The main difference between the two lies in the difference between deductive and inductive research methods. Deductive reasoning is the standard for Academia, but Geological Surveys must rely on inductive methods to produce the sort of knowledge that serves the broad public interest. Inductive research methodology leads to new knowledge, new questions and new insights just like deductive reasoning, and is none the less for it.

inductive deductive

Where else but in a geological survey can one be asked to be complete? Geological Surveys are the developer and custodian of the information that the taxpayer must have access to in order to enable decisions about investments in matters concerning the earth. Such investments are made by governments or by industry or in partnership. The knowledge produced, maintained and made accessible by Geological Surveys then enables a proper regulatory environment for the management of our natural resources.

This differentiation of roles appears simple and transparent. For many decades, the distinction between three types of institutions were essentially unchallenged and unquestioned. The need for Geological Surveys (and for comparable public institutions) dates back to the 19th century when many new Nation States had just been formed. Young governments needed objective and unbiased information on their natural resources in order to plan and justify investments in infrastructure, human settlement and resource utilization.

The explosive growth of Information Technology and novel ways of observing the earth and the new world order after the end of the Cold War has changed things. One of the consequences of these events is that national governments withdraw from direct meddling in the affairs of public institutions such as geological surveys: the apparent victory of capitalism (in Europe) means that the user has the final word and that government decentralizes. The idea is that public institutions must justify their place under the sun by carrying out work for which a user group is willing to pay.

Nobody denies that the secure and often hardly challenged position of many geological surveys had caused them to be a bit myopic, a bit too fat on the ribs and a bit too slow in their responses at times. Nobody denies that there was a tendency here and there to lose sight of their specific role. Nobody denies that a bit of a shake-up and a bit more challenge wouldn’t be healthy.

But we must ask to what extent we can allow the user demand to dominate the work of survey institutions, because most users have relatively short-term goals and needs. The government – as a user – generally finds it difficult to look ahead further than one election cycle, typically 4-6 years. With exceptions, notably in Canada (Duke, 2010), industry has fairly short term needs as well. Isn’t there a risk that the current trend threatens geological survey organizations to become technical service agencies? Are we in the process of giving society what it asks rather than what it needs? A technical service outfit will give the user what it asks, such as analysis of a sample set, interpretation of a set of cores. What society needs can only be articulated by intelligent leaders with a long term evidence-based vision about where society is headed, where it should head, and what tasks are necessary to support the desired direction.

The work of a geological survey scientist is becoming endangered and I doubt whether this will benefit society in the long run. You participated in many projects while at BGR, quite a few of which took you to exotic locations, but you are here today because of your accomplishment in leading the production of the structural Atlas of Northwest Germany and the German sector of the North Sea. This atlas is not only your main achievement, it was also originally your idea, based in the realization that the quick job of Alfred Brenz, who compiled a geotectonic atlas of northwestern Germany in 1947, deserved proper updating. Your project started with regional mapping of the base of the Cretaceous and evolved from there to include the detailed mapping of every meaningful stratigraphic interval over a period of 25 years.

It is difficult for geological survey instutions today to find and justify the resources necessary for a project of such significance. As a society, we must remain alert that we don’t lose the capacity that this sort of necessary, relevant, long term work is carried out and carried over.

(I exclude the more personal end of the speech).


Duke, J.M., 2010, Government geoscience to support mineral exploration: public policy rationale and impact. Prepared for Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (http://www.pdac.ca/publications/enews/publications—enews/2010/10/06/october-6-2010—no.-74 ), 72 p.

Kosters, E.C., 2000, citation for Dr. Franz Kockel on the occasion of receiving KNGMG’s “Van Waterschoot van der Gracht Medal”. KNGMG/ALW Newsletter, 2000/8, p. 8-11.

[1] named after the iconic first director of the Netherlands Geological Survey, Dr. Willem Van Waterschoot van der Gracht, who was also instrumental in getting KNGMG off the ground. A short bio is at http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/chronob/WATE1873.htm

About earth science society

I am an earth scientist. Understanding earth is essential for the well-being of our global society. Earth is fascinating, science is fascinating and a better understanding of both can help society forward. This blog attempts to make a contribution to raising awareness of these issues.
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