ISGS - State of the Survey Address
Challenges: 2006–2007December 7, 2007
William W. Shilts, Chief
During the past year, ISGS activities have been newsworthy as never before, thanks largely to the growing public awareness of the critical role Illinois' energy and water resources play in not only the lives of our citizens, but also the lives of people well beyond our borders. Local, state, national, and international news organizations have reported on ISGS' role in projects such as FutureGen, carbon sequestration, and the discovery of a 350-million-year-old rainforest floor, frozen in time in the ceiling of an Illinois coal mine. These and many other ISGS research topics were picked up by the press, partly because of growing public concern about climate change and sustainability of water resources, and have helped bring news coverage of the ISGS to a level unprecedented in my 13 years here. I doubt that our research has ever been so widely reported.
There is a reason for this. With luck and with difficulty, we have assembled a staff with an envelope of expertise that is closely attuned to society's accelerating demand for earth science guidance and support. Thus, we have the right people, arguably one of the best teams in the country, to provide the technical underpinnings of innovative energy and other projects. Those projects include FutureGen and several similar private sector coal gasification or coal-to-liquid projects with geological sequestration of the resulting CO2 emissions. We have hydrogeologists to help develop, with the Illinois State Water Survey, comprehensive plans that will ensure safe and adequate water supplies for our children. We have Quaternary scientists who are working with geological surveys all over the world to develop computer and data-gathering tools to make the modern three-dimensional (3-D) geological models and maps so necessary and in such demand for urban planning and resource development. We have engineers working on ways to reduce in-plant water consumption and eliminate pollutants resulting from energy production. We have scientists and technicians who work with the Illinois Natural History Survey and other agencies, primarily Illinois Department of Transportation, to preserve and restore wetlands while evaluating potential environmental hazards associated with highway or airport (O'Hare, Peotone) construction.
In short, opportunities such as the $1.5 billion FutureGen project would not have been an option for Illinois without the sophisticated geoscientific base provided by the ISGS energy team, and the demand for our 3-D geology maps to support planning decisions in the Chicagoland and St. Louis Metro East area could not have been fulfilled without the cutting-edge research and technical innovations of the mapping team.
There also is a clear message in the preceding words for the people of Illinois and their government. ISGS is able to tackle these challenges and fulfill these ever more critical needs because we are both an academic and a service agency that carries out proactive research; that is, our pool of scientific expertise and data and our contact with other geological surveys and researchers, nationally and around the world, allow us to tailor our research to areas where our clients, the citizens and businesses of Illinois, have or will have the most need. By observing scientific and societal trends here and elsewhere and carrying out Illinois-specific research that is available in a timely way when crucial decisions have to be made by individuals or government, the Illinois State Geological Survey is able to stay at or ahead of the cutting edge of the types of research most pertinent to Illinoisans' needs.
For instance, Rob Finley spoke to us about coming opportunities for carbon sequestration research in his interview seminar in 1999, and the energy team that he put together after joining us was well along in putting together research plans and multistate partnerships early in 2002 to compete for major funding for sequestration research. He and his team anticipated the public reaction to climate change drivers and used knowledge gained from their professional contacts in the energy industry to be ready to compete for the FutureGen project, even before it was announced publicly. Without our professional contacts, prescient research program, and the expertise we developed through it, Illinois would not be host to two of the four potential FutureGen sites.
The primary reason we have been so successful over the past 100 years in anticipating and fulfilling Illinoisans' geoscience needs is because we have enjoyed strong and stable core funding from the State. This funding allows scientists who do not depend on short-term contracts and grants to do research or develop externally funded programs that they know will have application months or years down the road or that will provide new products that our clients do not even envision until made aware of them. This is true of all of the State Scientific Surveys: the stable-funded core provides the research breakthroughs and the ability to have appropriate expertise and proven concepts and results in place to address societal issues before the non-earth science community knows the issues exist. I make this point for two reasons. First, there are many examples in our annual report and on our website of services we have rendered to our citizens as a direct result of having these anticipated research results in place. Second, there is a strong trend in state governments, here and elsewhere, to cut General Revenue funding for state agencies and put them on a "user pays" basis. If this should happen to the Illinois Surveys (and it has happened to geological surveys elsewhere with disastrous results), they will become, essentially, state-sponsored consulting firms with "billable hours" and little chance to do anticipatory research. That is, they will be responding to clients' issues after they become problems, not before, as usually is the case now, and the Illinois Surveys will be increasingly forced to look for business outside the state, as is the case in some major state geological surveys now. Worse, instead of being prepared, Illinois business and government will be unprepared for changes and opportunities that could have been anticipated.
The reason I make the preceding statements is to react to some of the difficult situations that have beset us over the past year. It is ironic that, as we provide the greatest support to our state, possibly, in the history of the Survey, we are suffering collectively from some of the most confining conditions, I would go so far as to say crises, in our history. Last year, I told you of an appropriation of more than half a million dollars and accompanying head count increase that was added to our fiscal year 2007 GRF budget at the request of Representative Jakobsson. Because of state revenue shortfalls, that amount was removed from this year's budget by line item veto, and we have been warned that a further reserve of a comparable size may be withheld. We are also hearing of strong pressure to reduce and possibly eventually eliminate our General Revenue funded core and replace it with some yet-to-be identified alternative revenue source in line with what the Department of Natural Resources as a whole is apparently being requested to do.
Our Board, chaired by Deputy Director Sgro, has approved the Chiefs' plan to award salary increases averaging four percent to be retroactive to September 1, 2007, but permission to award the increases has been withheld as of this writing. I want to assure all of you that the Chiefs, our Board of Natural Resources and Conservation, Deputy Director Sgro, and our local legislators are all actively trying to secure permission to award our raises.
You have also heard me talk in the past of the necessity of establishing some sort of Survey institute, an entity that recognizes the need for anticipatory research and the crucial requirement to offer salaries and conditions of employment that are different from other state civil service institutions and more in line with those of the state's public universities, with whom we compete for talent. Although we are by statute considered exempt from typical civil service rules, much like the professionals in the legal and medical areas of state government, to protect our scientific impartiality, our exempt status in our present placement in state government has actually hurt us, particularly with respect to the lack of raises in four of the past five years.
Increasingly, other supporters of the Surveys are trying to help us find a structure and placement that will allow the Surveys to continue to attract and nurture the scientists and staff who have traditionally and selflessly contributed to the economic development of Illinois and to the environmental protection of her citizens. You can be assured that my fellow chiefs and I are active in searching for a better situation for the Surveys, regardless of where they may be embedded in the state governmental apparatus, and our Board has been our steadfast ally in this quest. This issue is not dead, and I passionately believe that it must be resolved for the good of all of you and for the good of the citizens of Illinois.
In spite of these impediments, we have again had a good year. I thank you for that, and I want you to know that I am personally committed to ensuring that next year and succeeding years will see the Survey continue to provide Illinois citizens the best and most sophisticated earth science support in the country, especially in this era of critical earth science questions—impacts of climate change, burgeoning urban populations, tidal shifts in energy strategies, increasing value and strife associated with water issues, and using our Saudi-sized coal energy reserves in economical and environmentally appropriate ways. We have the teams to address these and other issues now, and we have been able to attract new team members because of our reputation, not because of our salaries. It is my continuing mission to preserve and defend that reputation for your benefit and for the benefit of the people of Illinois and to continue to seek a situation in which the Survey and you can thrive.
Updated 05/06/2011 SLD