Independence Minutiae: The Geological Survey

(Title Image: Directions Magazine)

What does the Geological Survey do?

The British Geological Survey (BGS) is a research institute focused on geology, hydrology and seismology both on the island of Great Britain and the wider world.

Once a branch of the Ordnance Survey, the (BGS) was separated and merged with other organisations to become the BGS we know today.

The overall role of the institute is to provide impartial advice on all aspects of geoscience to make sure governments, the wider public sector and companies make the right decisions. This could include accurate mapping of underlying geological features for major infrastructure projects, providing data on the impact of climate change as well as pollution and – at a global level – help detect earthquakes and volcanic activity.

The BGS also funds PhD studentships in relevant areas.

The BGS is headquartered near Nottingham, but since 2004 has operated a base at Cardiff University with 9 staff (compared to 178 staff in Scotland and 13 staff in Northern Ireland).

Some of the BGS’s research in Wales in 2015-16 (pdf p14) includes carbon capture & storage, open data on sub-surface geology for the construction industry, using heat from abandoned coal mines and research into a possible geothermal heat source under Cardiff.

Geological Survey Funding & Impact

The BGS is funded via a mix of public and private sources. Around half of its £58.1million annual budget comes from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the rest of the money is raised from external sources such as privately-funded research projects.

Although BGS isn’t directly funded by the UK Government, NERC is a no-departmental government body.

A report from 2003 (pdf) suggested that in 2001, the BGS’s work contributed to as much as £34-61billion of UK economic activity. At a Welsh level, this would be an equivalent of anything between £1.6-3billion.

Geological Survey & Independence

What are the possible options open to Wales?

  • Maintain British Geological Survey services – Essentially nothing changes, though the Welsh Government would be expected to take a proportional “stake” in the body. The Welsh contribution to the budget would depend entirely on the status of Research Councils post-independence, but on a pro-rata basis, at current prices, it would be around £1.5million – but per employee based in Wales it would be just £780,000.
  • Pass geological survey duties to Natural Resources Wales (or another body) – This is similar to geological services in Ireland. Under this, geological survey responsibilities (as well as perhaps other like atmospheric science and ecology & hydrology) would pass to an existing government body as a sub-department. Natural Resources Wales would be the obvious choice. Some of the required staff may already be employed by the body and could simply be moved, but it would require some measure of up-front investment. An additional £1.5-2million to NRW’s budget should be enough to cover the day-to-day running, plus there’s the opportunity to generate income through private finance and research commissions.
  • Establish a separate Welsh Geological Survey – It would probably make sense for any Welsh Geological Survey to be based at a university; Bangor University would make a lot of sense due to its good reputation for oceanography and natural science research as well as its proximity to the most geologically interesting part of Wales – Snowdonia. The annual budget for Geological Survey Ireland is about €9million (£8.3million) and they have 70 staff. For Wales, you’re probably looking at £3million a year and 20-30 staff.

All of these options are perfectly viable. For the sake of continuity, the best bet is to maintain the BGS in Wales – at least until the situation demands that anything needs to be changed. Having our own geological survey would be preferable and would create high-end science jobs, but it comes down to how Research Councils are managed post-independence – which is a subject worth discussing in its own right another time.