State of the Survey 2010

Don McKay, Director
Illinois State Geological Survey
March 26, 2010

 

The state of the Illinois State Geological Survey is rock solid. The state of the State, however, is shaky.

The ISGS, the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability, and the University of Illinois, along with every other institution, agency, business, and taxpayer in Illinois have been swept up in a financial storm with no end in sight. That causes us concern. As we at the Survey keep an eye on the storm, our focus remains on our science and our service to our clients.

At the ISGS, our science and service are relevant and in demand; we are immersed in our work; we are highly productive; we are proud of the Survey and its 105 year heritage; we are pleased to be a key part of the University of Illinois; and we are working to improve.

For the moment our budget appears to be whole, and that gives us some comfort. Nevertheless, we look to Springfield for signs of willingness on the part of the State's leaders to identify and take appropriate steps to turn around state government's financial crisis, and to restore resources sufficient to sustain high-quality University education and Survey science in Illinois.

We also watch what is happening nationally and are concerned about trends in public funding that have cut deeply into the ability of other state scientific surveys to serve their states. These institutions play a role that is especially important in difficult times. Our science and our service support economic development, energy and natural resource management, environmental protection, hazard preparedness, change adaptation, and a host of other societal priorities.

The University has given us greater autonomy to manage our funds than we have ever had, and the independence to steer our Survey, to determine our research priorities, and to achieve our objectives. These are strong indications that the University leadership is aware of our value, our mission, our self sufficiency, and our significant contributions to the University mission. That supportive environment gives us reason as an organization to be optimistic about our future.

These times are surely the most challenging in many years. Many higher education institutions in Illinois, including the U of I, have not received significant parts of their FY2010 funding. Thus the outcome of fiscal 2010 for the University is uncertain, and by all indications, fiscal 2011 in Illinois will be poor, and fiscal 2012 may be no better. The University, therefore, is unlikely to be in a position to help us if our budget is cut seriously.

But, while our budgetary situation at the Survey and the Institute is uncertain, it is not dire. We are hopeful that the current, 2010, budget will be fully funded. There are indications that we may be flat funded in 2011, and that would be good. As they say, flat is the new increase. However, truth be told, a cut is possible. We just don't know.

As you know, the University's Voluntary Separation Incentive Program (VSIP) is intended to reduce personnel costs in coming years. It will lead to the departure of perhaps a dozen of our ISGS colleagues in the next 4 or 5 months. Considering the costs of the program, which must be borne by the Survey, including payout of 50% of salary plus compensable leave for each participant, our Survey will realize no savings in 2011 and will get budgetary relief in 2012 only if we are allowed to retain the savings of that year.

Now, let's focus on the ISGS and on some measures whereby we can judge the state of the Survey.

Judging by the diversity, number, and importance of our research projects and of our contract sponsors, we find that demand for our science is strong and growing. In fact, total ISGS spending from all sources this past fiscal year reached an all-time high of $20 million. Never before has that much money supported a single year of our research.

We have major geologic and engineering projects under way or recently completed with USDOE, NOAA, EPRI, ICCI, IDOT, USEPA, and USGS. County and local governments and industrial partners also have funded our research, technical assistance, mapping, groundwater, and other projects generously.

Judging by the number of repeat sponsors of significant parts of our contract work, our research products and outcomes are appreciated greatly. What better measure is there than repeat paying customers to demonstrate that we are relevant and effective?

Judging by the number of stakeholder letters written to Congress in support of our work, our stakeholders believe our programs are important and our petitions to Congress for support are on target and worthy of their active endorsement. Nearly 200 letters from Illinois businesses, associations, agencies, and individuals were written in a single campaign last year in support of our 3-D mapping program alone. One of those letters represented an association including several Fortune 500 companies.

Judging by the relatively small proportion of the Survey staff which has signed up for the VSIP, we like our jobs. I understand the decisions of those who have found that this is a favorable time for them to depart. These are complex personal decisions. I will strive to support your choices. I also understand the motivations of others who have faced the same options and chosen to stay. We stay, believing there is much good and exciting work remaining.

Judging by the addition of a 5th scientific survey to the Institute, the INRS is a desirable home for other Academic Professionals in the University, like us, researchers who wish to conduct their research in service to the people of Illinois under the INRS umbrella. The Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) and ISGS have much in common scientifically, and I look forward to growing collaborations between us. We all can take this merger as a further sign that the Institute is a center of program stability and growth even as other programs in the University are being reviewed for consolidation or elimination.

Judging from the innovation, discovery, creativity, and excitement that I observe in you and in your work, you find your jobs rewarding in important ways.

During the Naturally Illinois Expo two weeks ago, as I walked the exhibits and stood and watched the teachers, students, parents, and children listening, asking, and absorbing, I was very pleased by what I saw. Your displays and presentations were thoughtful, content rich, and engagingly presented. I watched you pass on your knowledge and enjoy the moment with each contact. I watched a small boy in a crowd of elementary students emerging from the lab where our geochemists were doing fun things with liquid nitrogen. As the little guy came through the door, he had a huge grin on his face and, holding the attention of all his friends, he punched the air and shouted, "That was awesome!" My reaction, exactly.

I proudly showed my family and grandchildren the work you were displaying. I congratulate the organizers and all who collaborated to make the Expo a great success.

Judging from your demeanor as the State's fiscal problems have deepened, you are taking that situation calmly. In fact, the staffs of all the Surveys, after years in State government, have become used to the impacts of difficult times. As part of state government, we downsized our GRF spending and headcounts repeatedly. We curtailed travel and nearly ceased buying field vehicles and scientific equipment. We consolidated our support functions, and we worked without raises year upon year.

We are accustomed to persevering, focusing on our work, funding our research, and providing uninterrupted quality service to our clientele. When it comes to hard economic times, we have seen them before and have become used to the notion that the Survey can and will adapt successfully.

Judging from all these things, you are a capable, dedicated, and productive group. You are rock solid. And, the State of the Survey message is a good time to emphasize that.

But, the purpose of the message is broader. It is also an opportunity for me to suggest areas where we could improve, to identify changes I plan to make, and to propose initiatives that we should undertake.

1. We must focus on sustaining and building relevant scientific expertise and leadership. Over the past couple of decades, our staffing has changed significantly in numbers, funding sources, and degree status. During the past 20 years, our total scientific staff has dropped more than 30% from 166 to 105 scientists. Inevitably we were changed, if not diminished by this. Some very good scientists have left us. More will leave soon via the VSIP.

Yet, it is useless to focus on the past in an attempt to recreate it. We need to move on. Many times I have had a section head say to me, "My section used to have 8 GRF heads and now we have only 6, so I need two more." Rather, the approach should be, "I have this great idea and need help to carry it out. How might we achieve that?" My point is, focus forward not backward.

During the two decades when our population of scientists dropped 30%, our GRF funding dropped nearly 40% (from $9.5 to $5.8 million). In response, we increased our contract funding by 60% (from $9.1 to $14.5 million). In other words, 30% fewer scientists brought in $5.6 million more in contract funding. Did this money replace the science that would have been done by 30% more state funded people? Probably not. The types of research and service we did for contracts were different than the research we would have otherwise done. We changed. We developed new programs and deemphasized others. We created an outstanding geologic mapping capability and rebuilt our energy research into a world class enterprise. We acquired drilling capabilities, established new labs, and closed others. We put major efforts and resources into building and using computing systems to support our work.

While external funding will continue to propel evolution of our research and staffing, other internal trends are at work as well. A quick look at our demographics or a look around the room shows that many of our holders of higher degrees are getting long in the tooth. We have 35 PhDs on staff. Today, 20% are age 39 or younger; 26% are in their 40s; and 54% are over 50. It is likely that many in that older group will be moving on in the next 5 or 10 years. In that way we reflect our profession, and other science and engineering organizations that are facing the same prospective departures. Another statistic, a stark one, is that only 6% of our PhDs are women. We must consider all these facts and trends when we plan future hiring.

You can also make a difference in our future by involving students in your work and by increasing your education. In my seminar a month ago, I reminded you that I and a number of us here received degrees from the University of Illinois while working at the Survey. I encourage you to explore that model as a means not only of training and trying out students, but also of expanding your education and your horizons.

2. Our organizational structure should serve us better. In my seminar last month I mentioned reorganization. It is trite that the new director reorganizes. I don't take this lightly and believe there are good reasons for us to consider change now.

Undoubtedly you have observed organizational functions that work poorly, or that impede communication or collaboration, and that ought to be changed.

I am already gathering suggestions from the management team, and today, I am asking for your observations and ideas. I welcome your emails with suggestions about organizational change that would improve the overall functioning of our Survey. I will consider everything that you provide to me. I will also set up a system to allow anonymous input. Following your input, I will work with the management team to prepare a plan, and I will provide that plan to you for comment before it is finalized.

In the present structure, our hierarchy is multi-leveled, and our units tend to be static, retrospectively focused, and at times limiting. Teamwork is vital in today's science. We must remove remaining barriers, real or perceived, that inhibit cooperation among staff members in different parts of the organization. We must be dynamic in creation of teams to pursue research objectives and then be open to dissolution and reformation of teams as projects are completed and new ones start.

Our structure must not impede the rise of staff members' good ideas. The name and history of your unit, for example, should not limit your ability to propose good science that you are uniquely qualified to lead, that can be accomplished by the team and with the resources you can assemble, and that fits the Survey's mission. Proposal PI-ship should be determined by expertise, leadership, and initiative, not by section affiliation.

Our managers play important roles in mentoring, directing, funding, leading, reviewing, and evaluating. We will need to ensure that those and other critical management functions continue to be provided effectively.

3. We should make better use of our ISGS publication series. The number of Survey circulars, bulletins, and other reports published annually has shown a significant drop over the past decade. The trend itself demonstrates that we have changed our model for delivering our science significantly. Increasingly, we publish maps in our series, but we put our reports in outside journals. We place some reports on our website and now use e-commerce to offer digital products that have largely replaced hard copy. Perhaps that fact has made our series seem less tangible. Yet most journals have gone digital, too.

I am concerned with the tendency not to publish in our own series. Our publications are important, whether hardcopy or digital. Our circulars and bulletins are well suited for short timely reports as well as for longer treatises, for large figures, and for data compilations.

Our final contract reports often go unpublished, and when they do, significant data and results are unavailable to potential beneficiaries. Our open file series should contain our significant contract reports as it once did.

Our internal reviews hinder us and are the most frequently cited reason that our authors publish outside. Too often, our peer reviews are slow and our administrative reviews redundant. Reviewers, please make it a priority to push the next document out your door. Technical reviewers, review to ensure scientific accuracy not to rewrite in your own style. Administrators, focus on review for policy compliance.

Our publications offer distinct advantages as outlets for our science. And, they are our product. I strongly encourage you to push to complete your papers and to publish more of them as Survey reports.

Speaking of survey publications...In the coming months, the Geology of Illinois will be completed. That milestone product will showcase your work beautifully, and we look forward to a variety of spin off products.

4. We should make better use of digital media to present ourselves. We have made good progress. Our website has recently been updated and improved. Our home page is attractive, and its content is rotated regularly with new stories appearing at least monthly. It has an e-commerce function that we are expanding to include Natural History Survey publications. Our Natural Resources Geospatial Data Clearinghouse, one of the first in the nation, provides for free downloads of large volumes of information. Our ILOIL and ILWATER web services provide access to important databases, an excellent service to our customers. But, our website lacks the depth of content and ease of use that should be reflective of our Survey.

Our web designers and programmers can implement virtually anything we want in terms of look and mechanics, but it is not their job to create scientific content or the logic behind the site's structure. Scientists and managers, it is our job, but many of us have remained detached. I suggest that we need to step up and contribute scientific content reflective of the scope of our activities, logically organized, discoverable and usable. Shortly, I will be opening a dialog on how to proceed, and I am considering naming a web working group to undertake leadership in this area. I welcome ideas and volunteers.

5. Data preservation is a crucial element of our work that we could improve. Databases are critically important contributions that state scientific surveys make uniquely. Neither academic departments, nor federal surveys, nor industries, have our mandate to collect and maintain geoscience and engineering data and make them available in perpetuity. In this, too, we have room to improve.

We have not fully accomplished the decades-long transition from paper to digital capture and archive of our important data. We must identify all data resources worthy of preservation, and do a much better job of capture of data in databases of standard format, documented, and managed centrally. If your data are on your hard drive, undocumented, when you retire or even when you move to the next project, they might as well not exist.

We have the software, servers, and expertise required to do a much better job in preserving our data. Today, I am asking that you give more attention to preservation of your data and that you work with the Data Management Oversight Team (DMOT) to consider and implement procedures to improve capture and long-term management of our important data.

6. Your initiative and timely action benefit the Survey. Over a period of time I have observed the slow completion of a task here, an overdue deliverable there, and worse, a late final report or overdue project. If a project falters, we all do. Every contribution makes a difference. You each have the background, experience, and capability required to do your part. The bottom line is that when you help a project reach its goals and meet its deadlines, the project succeeds, and the Survey sustains its good reputation.

7. We are all dependent on each other. We rely on our support staff to do their good work to help us accomplish our primary responsibility, which is research productivity. By removing unnecessary bureaucracy, and putting their considerable talents to the tasks at hand, those who support our science are key members of our team. As scientists, we respect the support staff and their work and understand that we are as dependent on them as they are on us.

As you may know, I have been reviewing our labs, drilling, and geophysical operations to make maximum use of them in support of our science. I recently asked the scientific staff to identify their needs for such work so that I can direct some additional resources toward projects with the greatest potential benefit. That process yielded a lot of good ideas, and on last Tuesday I authorized our drilling team to move ahead on several of the proposed projects. Over the next few weeks, we will look at requests for geophysics and lab work and determine which we may be able to support.

8. We should look to our fellow surveys for collaborations. Over the next several months, I will head an inter-survey task force looking at collaboration among survey libraries and creation of a unified INRS Library. That effort is one of several the surveys will undertake formally to explore and implement collaborations to improve functionality and efficiency collectively.

Soon, the Surveys will begin a joint review of laboratories, as well, another area where changing funding, technology, staffing, and service models have left all of the surveys with some facilities that are antiquated or underused. Be aware that the lab review is coming and prepare to critically assess the status of your lab operations. What functions might be offered to or obtained from other Surveys? What technologies are redundant or outdated? What capabilities are needed, but unavailable in house or elsewhere at reasonable cost?

9. We should refocus outreach efforts. Next year the central United States will begin commemoration of the bicentennial of the massive New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. It is fitting for the ISGS to participate in bicentennial activities, continuing to inform our citizens, emergency responders, and planners about earthquake risk in Illinois. I want to go further. As one component of that commemoration, I am asking you today to begin planning our spring 2011 public field trips to emphasize earthquake hazards, structural geology, and related issues in southern Illinois.

As an agency and as a science, we are not culturally diverse. In fact we are the opposite. So, in addition to a spring field trip with an earthquake theme, I am asking that you consider holding our fall 2011 field trips in the other end of the state, the Chicago area. Four counties in NE Illinois contain 7.5 million people, and in sheer numbers, those 7.5 million are our public. That area should draw our focus. There we should emphasize outreach to culturally diverse communities, teachers, families, and youth.

We must in the course of our outreach programs seek to spread our geologic field trips and learning opportunities not only across the interesting geology of the rural regions of the state, but also into urban areas where we will actively encourage participation by members of underrepresented groups to learn about the geology of their areas.

I will conclude by saying that the good news about the State of the Survey is that our placement in the Institute in the University of Illinois has given us a substantial foundation and control over our fate. Yes, we face budgetary uncertainties that are beyond our control, but working together, we can change for the better all things that are under our control. We can be a better Survey and be optimistic about the future of our rock-solid Geological Survey.