State of the Survey 2008

Don McKay, Director
Illinois State Geological Survey
December 5, 2008

On July 1, 2008, the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) was swept up in a major change in the administrative structure of tax-supported science done in the public service for Illinois. After being part of state government for 103 years and part of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) for the past 13, we find ourselves transferred, merged, and incorporated into the University of Illinois. Much of this change was our own doing. Most of it was what we wanted. Some of it was what we anticipated, and for the most part the opportunities we hoped for have been realized or are promised. What does this mean for our science, for our administration, for the future of our research and our jobs, and for the people of Illinois?

Although the transfer occurred abruptly, it followed months of intensive planning that followed years of preparatory discussion. And the transition into the University is in some aspects over and in other aspects still in its early stages.

Uncertainty about when and even if the merger would occur remained until the last minute. Bill Shilts and I were in the hills of West Virginia at a federal conference center when we got word via cell phone on June 30 that Governor Blagojevich had signed the authorizing legislation. The transfer was effective at midnight that night. July 1 dawned with us 700 miles away and the ISGS, the Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois State Water Survey, and the newly renamed Illinois Sustainable Technology Center being part of the new Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability in the University of Illinois. Thus, the much anticipated, but uncertain-until-the-end merger began in earnest.

The mechanics of such a merger wedged into such a very short span of time were complex. For its part, the University of Illinois took on a huge task in transferring more than 600 staff members of the four Surveys into its payroll and human resource systems. Dozens of University staff members in many key positions were involved, people who already had full-time jobs and heavy workloads. Despite that, they learned about us, fit us into their systems, listened to our questions and objections patiently, adjusted to our idiosyncrasies quickly, and without hesitation made the process work. More than that, they greeted us warmly.

The move of the Surveys into the University and Institute is much more than administrative window dressing. It was thoughtfully designed. Historic legislative mandates, regarding the nature of Survey research and the focus of our service predominately within the geographic extent of Illinois, were restated in our authorizing legislation. But, beyond that, we have been given new flexibility compatible with the mission of a land-grant research university.

Our Survey's location hasn't changed. We have been right here on campus for over a century. Despite that, since the transfer, many of us feel a stronger identification with the University and greater kinship with our University colleagues. And for their part, faculty and students approach us with the enthusiasm of a newly found friend. New research collaborations are sprouting, as we rapidly shed our image as an "allied agency." In perception and in reality we are becoming an integral part of the premier university in Illinois and one of the top research universities in the nation.

So, here we are. Bill Shilts, our colleague and former Chief, is the founding Executive Director of the new Institute. Bill reports to Interim Vice Chancellor, Ravi Iyer. Chancellor Herman and President White, both of whom were active and strong advocates for our inclusion in the University, are at the top of our new organizational chart. Our Board of Natural Resources and Conservation has been reactivated as an advisory body. They met last Monday, renamed the Board of Natural Resource Sustainability. They are already engaged with the upper echelons of the University, and they are prepared and enthusiastic to be advocates for our Institute and our Survey.

Thus placed appropriately in the University structure and having the full support of senior leadership in the University and strong advisory and advocacy allies, the Institute and the Surveys are poised to continue our work, to grow, to thrive, and to enhance the University community.

Our transition has happened at a time when transitions are under way globally. From local to global levels, uncertainty about the future of water and energy supplies, the pace and impacts of climate change, the availability and suitability of land and mineral resources, the maintenance and expansion of transportation infrastructure, and the health of the economy has reached new levels of urgency. So it is particularly important now that the Surveys carry their knowledge, expertise, databases, and outlook beyond our local transition to contribute significantly to addressing important aspects of these global transitions. It is up to us in the Geological Survey to help Illinois and the world define and strive for a sustainable future for our natural environment, resource and raw material needs, and energy and water supplies, while contributing to a healthy economy.

Throughout the merger, you, the members of the Geological Survey staff, have performed steadily, sustaining all of your research and service programs and projects. In Decatur, you continued to work toward the world-watched test of CO2 sequestration technology in collaboration with our corporate partners Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Schlumberger, with the Department of Energy, and with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Related efforts under way at several sites pumped CO2 into partially depleted oil reservoirs to enhance oil recovery and into coal seams, demonstrating both practical uses and disposal options for a major greenhouse gas. Your geologic mapping program, being carried out largely in populous areas of the northeast and southwestern regions of the state is publishing maps at an unprecedented rate in support of resource and land-use policy and decision making. Your support of the Illinois Department of Transportation's infrastructure expansion is ongoing and expected to accelerate. In December 2007, culmination of your major efforts in support of Illinois' bid for FutureGen appeared to have been successful in bringing that commercial-scale, zero-emissions, coal-fired power station with sequestration to Mattoon. Then, the project was delayed indefinitely by the federal government. Well, I believe indefinite is about to end. You helped keep that work going by processing and interpreting more than 30 miles of seismic lines from the Mattoon site, and those results sustain your previous finding that the geologic setting is hospitable to deep saline-reservoir sequestration of CO2 there. The final chapter of the FutureGen story has not been written. State budget challenges threatened a significant program of applied research in support of water supply planning for the Mahomet aquifer and aquifers in northeastern Illinois just as we entered the University. It has been gratifying that county and local governments and institutions stepped up on short notice to directly support that project with over $100,000 of their own funds. As of this date, the project continues in large part because of that support for which we are grateful.

Regarding budgets, we are all aware of the financial news reported in the press. We have seen indications of preparation for belt tightening in e-mail communications from campus administration. Given the dismal financial picture globally, nationally, and in Illinois, we inevitably have questions about our budget. At this point, specifics remain unclear, but indications are that we will need to tighten our belt at the Survey. I can't as yet predict and won't speculate how this will turn out, but I want to remind you that during our many years in various state agencies, the Survey has survived and even thrived through many difficult budgets. As soon as I have solid parameters concerning our budget, I will let you know where we stand. I don't expect that to be until after the new year.

So it is that I can report here that the Geological Survey's merger with the University of Illinois is one that has honored our traditions, kept our mandates intact, and retained our name, a significant point of pride for us. We retained our staff, facilities, responsibilities, pride, strong sense of purpose, and 90% of our state budget. The tradition of ISGS research and service for the benefit of the people of Illinois, discharged ably for the past 103 years, remains our highest and most urgent objective. At the same time, we gained flexibility that we will employ to explore opportunities to expand upon our traditional role, to develop new research, and to venture into new areas. We are still in transition, in the sense that the Survey has always been in transition, asking ourselves basic questions. What new research capabilities and applied programs should be developed to meet coming needs? How can the ISGS and the Institute in partnership with our Survey and University colleagues make major contributions in the application of the geological sciences to the benefit of Illinois and beyond? These are large questions that our new situation allows us to pursue with renewed enthusiasm.

So, where do we go from here? This isn't an idle question. It isn't merely asking, "Which of our programs should we emphasize somewhat or which programs should we scale back?" We are faced here and now with a remarkable opportunity, one not often presented to a government organization. We can shed limits placed on us by past constraints. We can, if we want, consider remaking our Survey in a radically new image. We can take a serious look at our goals, our structure, our assumptions, and our methods, evaluate our flexibility and our options, and can on our initiative change ourselves into what we believe we need to become.

You may say, "Now let's be careful here." And, you would be absolutely correct. But, I say to you, let's not be so careful that we miss a chance to leap forward. Let's open our eyes to opportunities made available to us by our new situation. Keeping our obligations clearly in mind, let's plan a new future together and work together to implement that future. Truly, this is not a time to be timid.

I have been advised that you would like to hear from me something about my leadership style. And considering this call I've just made for self-examination and consideration of change, possibly radical change, leadership is very important. As I continue to be an interim director, my leadership style could become a moot point. Nevertheless, the timeframe for permanent leadership remains uncertain, and until someone else steps into this job, you and I are in this together, and I would submit that we don't have time to waste. So, my leadership style is relevant.

My history at the Survey goes back to the early 1970s. I have had an office on every floor in the Natural Resources Building. I have studied the Quaternary and glacial geology of Illinois from Galena to Cairo and from Danville to Quincy. I have worked in or with every scientific section we have (and many that are no longer) and have led several. I left the Survey in the early 1980s for a consulting firm, working with the nuclear power and nuclear waste isolation industries and with government agencies overseeing them. When that firm was acquired by a large West Coast company, I was offered three positions, one in Las Vegas, one in Long Beach, California, and one back here in the Stratigraphy Section. I accepted the latter in a millisecond, and I have never, never second guessed that decision. The Survey is a great place to work, a great place to do science in the public service, and a great place to be.

Given those 37 years here minus three away, most of you know me fairly well. You know I believe that the geological surveys serve a vital role in society. You know I believe in the value of every member of the Survey team, in the strength of the collective knowledge and experience of you and our team of leaders, and in the wisdom of decisive leadership. I believe in applied scientific programs aimed at mission-defined objectives and directed by research scientists. I value tradition but promote change for the sake of improvement. I believe technology is providing valuable new tools that will help us advance our analyses, interpretations, and information delivery. I know there is no substitute for boots-on-the-ground field science. I believe there is much yet to be discovered about the geology of Illinois and much improvement needed in our delivery of that knowledge to our stakeholders.

I am an interim director, not a chief. Frankly, I liked the title chief. I grew up in the 1950s, the heyday of westerns when chiefs were leaders. My son-in-law is a sergeant in the Marine Corps. He served in Iraq. He respects a leader, and he knows the difference between a leader and a manager. Blake would say, "You can lead your squad into the fight, but you can't manage them into it." Now, the Survey is not fighting a battle, not even a skirmish. No lives are at stake. But livelihoods and careers are. The traditions and future of this institution are. The vitality and success of our Survey are in our hands.

I believe best leadership decisions are preceded by active involvement of the staff. Facing change, the Survey must be looking for opportunities, exploring options, and acting decisively. Your ideas, interests, and ambitions are important. We will only succeed in new areas if you embrace that change. Time and new funding will bring new colleagues with new expertise that we will need in order to adapt our program to the future, but it is up to you and me now to choose that future.

Here are some facts we need to consider as we go forward:

  • State funding via direct appropriation will very likely continue to decrease. General revenue funding is not a reliable long-term funding model. The consequence of that is that we will need to bring in a steady supply of contracts and gifts to sustain, diversify, and grow our program.
  • Increased flexibility that comes with being part of the University offers opportunities for us to attract that new money and appear to make it easier for us to compete in arenas previously restricted, partially or completely, to us as a state agency.
  • Pursuing funded projects for work outside Illinois is now possible. The fact is, the state's boundary has now become permeable to us. We can do research elsewhere and be within our University-defined scope. But, we must also continue to fulfill our mandates and, therefore, must choose extra-state projects wisely. The bottom line is this: we can and should look for opportunities elsewhere that enhance programs and have benefits here in Illinois.
  • We are not faculty. As presently classified, we are academic professionals and civil servants. Regardless of classification, we will, as we always have, distinguish ourselves through the high quality and relevance of our research, our service, and our products.
  • We play our role expertly, and we fill vitally important roles in Illinois and this University. We measurably help the University meet its land grant mandate of applying science and technology to the betterment of our state. We are also more.
  • We are valued colleagues in ambitious multidisciplinary research programs and already have a strong national and international reputation for quality applied science.
  • We team effectively with faculty and students. We provide focus and continuity for short- and long-term research programs accomplished by our permanent professional research staff.
  • We have a highly skilled, dedicated, and professional support staff possessing the full range of critical support capabilities we need.
  • We follow through and provide our results to our many stakeholders, and we are closely connected to those who benefit from our results.
  • We Surveys collectively are an economic engine that supports itself with sponsored research funds at a level competitive with all other major research institutes on campus.
  • We greatly enhance the education of students who are fortunate enough to be involved in our work.
  • We are positioned to attract gifts via the U of I Foundation and have begun to do so.
  • As a result of years of lean budgets, we are trim and efficient.

Of course, all the preceding factors apply to the other Surveys as well. We Surveys are in this together. The Institute knits us together, and we all benefit from supporting each other and it. We can grow our individual and collective programs by looking for ways to share capabilities, data, resources, equipment, space, and people. I would charge you to learn more about the work of your colleagues in the other Surveys. Look for opportunities to team with them. In the same fashion, engage yourselves with your faculty peers. Look for mutually beneficial research and educational opportunities.

So, let's wrap this up. During the past 5 months, the Office of the Vice Chancellor, Bill and the Institute, the other Survey leaders, your administrative team and I have been dealing with the nuts and bolts of the merger, the transition. And I want to thank every one of them and you for extraordinary patience and effort. You have taken significant change in stride. While I thank you for that, my main message to you today is that change is not over. It is not time to relax and get comfortable in our new digs. This transition now needs to morph into a process of self-assessment leading to transformation of the Survey into a new and revitalized unit adapted to our new parameters and fully prepared to seek out and attack new opportunities. It is time to move past transition into transformation. With that as our goal, I'll be working with you and our leadership team in the coming weeks and months to develop our strategies along these lines.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.