State of the Survey 2011

Don McKay, Director
Illinois State Geological Survey
February 25, 2011

Good afternoon. This is our annual State of the Survey Address and Awards Ceremony.

In my talk today I am going to consider the Survey's philosophical underpinnings, history, and status and from that basis invite you to join me in planning for our future.

I will structure the talk around four important fundamental questions that we should all ask and all be able to answer about the Survey:
      1. What do we believe?
      2. Where have we been?
      3. Where do we stand?
      4. Where are we going?

To answer these is to restate our principles, to remind ourselves of the Survey's long and prestigious history, to clarify our current situation, and to help us sharpen our vision for the Survey's future.

Taken together, the answers to these questions provide the answer to another important question: What sets the Illinois State Geological Survey apart? It is very important that we be able to answer that question, especially in these times of scrutiny of government programs and demand for relevance. We must remind ourselves and our supporters of what sets the Survey apart and why it is an institution worthy of preservation and nurture.

What Do We Believe?

Beginning with basics, we believe
      • in the validity and integrity of the scientific method;
      • that well-executed geoscience—geology, its subdisciplines, and related engineering practice—can reveal vitally important truths about the Earth, its
        resources, and its systems;
      • in the validity of our original mandates and mission;
      • in the capacity of applied geoscience to positively impact the well-being of society;
      • in scientific excellence, collegiality, teamwork, and shared credit;
      • in the relevance of Illinois-focused research;
      • in the necessity of managing our business responsibly;
      • in the value of long-term collection of data and information in support of present and future science;
      • in the use of latest technology for data collection, analysis, and dissemination; and
      • in the timely delivery of our products via outreach and publication.

So, in brief, what we believe in is the Scientific Survey model as implemented and practiced here in Illinois for over a century.

Where Have We Been?

I recommend to each of you that you read Brud Leighton's Chapter 1 of the Geology of Illinois. In 41 pages, the longest chapter in the book I think, Brud recounts the history of geologic investigations in the state from earliest geological survey beginnings in 1851, through the founding of the modern ISGS in 1905, and continuing to the present. He presents the facts of our accomplishments thoroughly.

Evident in that history is that, since its beginning, the Survey has practiced applied research. We have gathered real world data and translated theory and hypothesis into practical terms, into knowledge that can be used to make informed decisions about the land, water, fossil fuels, hazards, industrial minerals, and environmental resources of our state. We have always sought to sharpen our knowledge of the Earth and to offer ours as the best geoscience available for Illinois. To sustain our relevance, we have always tried to anticipate the next issues society will face and to gather the data needed to answer the next questions. We have reached out to people, businesses, and governments to pass our knowledge along to greatest positive effect.

We have not wandered off on research agendas that have no foreseeable benefit to Illinois, yet we have a broad and progressive understanding of what constitutes benefit. We understand that the best geologists are those who have seen the most geology—even as we understand that Illinois is not the best place to see all geology. Thus, we are mindful that experience studying rocks, deposits, and processes and working with scientists and engineers in other places can benefit our knowledge and thereby our practice of our profession here at home.

We understand very well that we must ultimately justify our worth to the taxpayers of the state and to our funding partners, public and private.

We know that our work in Illinois often has application beyond our borders, and that at times we are the ones best suited to carry out that work elsewhere. To the extent that our work benefits the country and the world, it benefits Illinois. But in floating such justifications, we are careful that our endeavors promise the greatest possible short-term benefits here at home.

We teach occasionally. Doing so has put us in touch with a pool of students who can contribute to and may matriculate through our projects onto our staff. Our involvement in the affairs of academic departments, committees, and student advising has strengthened our relations with faculty. While we have sought to improve these collaborations, we have not sought to become faculty, and we do not wish to become the Geology Department South. We are research scientists and engineers with a clear mission and responsibilities separate from teaching and basic academic research.

We collaborate; we partner; and we mentor. Some of our best work is done in teams. The Survey is not a place with intense academic rivalry. As a researcher, I can work alone, but competition with peers does not drive me to do so. At the Survey we work together. We understand that a team can lift more than an individual, whether the load is physical or intellectual. We recognize that multidisciplinary teams bring more tools to the solution of complex scientific problems, so we encourage and reward second, third, fourth, and fifth authorships. We involve younger scientists and staff in our projects with an eye to their development and to the future of Survey science. In taking this approach we have mentored and are mentoring some of the best earth scientists and engineers in the nation.

So, where have we been? We have been down a path that has tested us and proven the worth of our endeavor.

Where Do We Stand?

We are active in a wide range of relevant scientific areas. Our programs address major areas of societal need in water and energy resources, greenhouse gas capture and disposal, climate change, environmental quality, hazards identification and mitigation, economic development, waste disposal, and basic earth science information collection and dissemination.

One of the biggest challenges in Illinois and most states today is financial. Economic news and outlooks are sobering. This week we have had renegade members of two state general assemblies hiding in our state, one group in our city. Governments are truly in crisis. At all levels they are rich in programs but poor in the resources to carry them out. Inevitably, programs, large and small, will need to be reduced or eliminated as budgets run in the red.

We can expect things to improve, but slowly. Cuts will likely continue to touch us. Last year the Voluntary Separation Incentive Program led to the early departure of 11 of our colleagues, but reassuring factors exist. We are one of the best state geological surveys in the nation. Our funding is diverse, and our state support has been steady for 3 years running. Few supported by government can say that.

We are one survey among five in a strong institute in a very important major university. We are with good company, among people and institutions that understand and support us. We have many friends, allies, and advocates in industry, government, and academia.

So, where do we stand? We are at the top of our game, and we are well positioned to weather the fiscal storm and emerge stronger. Given these things, the important question becomes where are we going?

Where Are We Going?

Our major contributions to favorable outcomes for the people of Illinois in these tough times derive from us doing our jobs well. As we go forward, we must as an organization continue to keep ourselves sharp, our programs outcome-based, our relevance obvious, our costs low, and our data, information, and knowledge accessible.

We must also adjust to change and evolve as an organization. We must update our vision of and plan for our future. Let's talk briefly about institutional evolution, the process of changing and updating ourselves.

Institutional evolution, like the revolutions we've watched sweeping North Africa and the Middle East recently, is about youth. The median age in these countries is in the lower twenties, and the young tend to be driven by hope and vision. The older we get, the more we rely on experience, and the more comfortable it becomes for us to repeat rather than to change.

Two weeks ago an editorial in a national newspaper related a story that happened in Egypt. In the reporter's words,

      I received an e-mail from a friend just back from Cairo. He told me he had seen a young man run out of his Cairo house. He was off to the
      demonstrations, to take his part in history. Running after him was his grandmother, who literally grabbed him by the ear and tried to drag him
      back inside. The young man wanted revolution and progress, and the grandmother was more inclined toward stability and peace.

This young man and his generation, by their impulsive and courageous actions early this month, overturned a government of 30 years and threw off the limitations that the older generation had for decades been subjected to and to varying degrees coped with and, perhaps, accepted. That day, Grandmother believed it more important to save her grandson. Grandson believed it most important to rescue the future. Neither was wrong. Neither was totally right.

The lesson in this for us is a slight stretch. Our stakes are not nearly as great, but, if we are to alter our Survey's standard way of doing business, sharpen our vision of what we must do next, and realize our potential here and now, we must, at least some of us must, get up and figuratively run out of the house. We must forget for the moment our habits and our perceived constraints. We must act as if we are young and bold. There will be plenty of us willing to temper your enthusiasm and grab you by the ear if necessary. But, run anyway, and join us in advocating innovation, creativity, openness to new ideas, and shared vision for the Survey's future.

You have heard it reported that the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and now Bahrain and Libya, have been and are being influenced by communication via social media. I wonder how many of you have seen the Survey's Facebook presence and follow our posts? The older folks are muttering . . ." What's that all about? That stuff is for kids."

You can ask, will the Survey's Facebook pages alter our reality? Who knows, but who thought two months ago that Facebook would help bring down Mubarak two weeks ago? Some things are just worth trying

At the Survey, our past does not dictate our future. We can imagine improvements in what, where, and how we conduct and deliver our science. We must, of course, justify our choices to our stakeholders, but that requirement isn't terribly restricting. Rather, it provides us clarity to pursue important geoscience issues related to our piece of the world, Illinois, which by the way is 13 million people living atop 55,000 square miles of interesting geology, our 0.1% of the global land mass.

So, where then are we going?

The Geology of Illinois is a great accomplishment and a sure success. Three-dimensional visualization has opened our eyes literally to new views of complex data and our hidden subsurface geology. Our sorbent activation process technology promises to save electric power generators in this country hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Carbon capture and storage has thrust us into the forefront of high-stakes societal imperatives to seek and demonstrate practical alternatives to our tendency to pollute our only atmosphere. How do we ensure that we sustain the big things we already have going? And, what is our next big thing? What must society know right away about Illinois geology? Will high-speed rail burst onto the scene? Will increased production of alternative fuels impact our water resources? Will nuclear power make a resurgence? Are there mineral resources in our state that might contribute to the meager world supply of rare earth elements? Think about the next questions.

We remind ourselves also that not everything must be big. The 106 years of ISGS history have shown that we can come long distances by making steady measured progress. Vision, dedication to goals, attainment of milestones year upon year is progress. Geologic mapping of this state is that type of a goal and is being accomplished quad by quad by quad with the funding that can be had in today's economy. Many other things we do are comparable in their pace and consequence.

So our four questions: what do we believe, where have we been, where do we stand, and where are we going lead us to this point. It is time for us, the entire Survey, to jointly consider and answer that last question, where are we going?

I have over the last two months initiated discussion with the Survey management team about development of a formal 5-year Survey Science Strategy that will be accomplished via a process that will produce our research agenda, service plans, and related strategies.

The process will be as important as the outcome. We will build from the ground up and begin by creating Section Science Strategies, outlooks on each section's 5-year research and service portfolios. The section heads and I want you to be directly involved in that process, so I invite each of you, young and not so young, to prepare to run out the figurative front door and to be involved in this process of defining the Survey's future.

We will formally begin development of the strategies upon implementation of the reorganization. You all have been very patient on that topic. Suffice it to say, we are awaiting final approvals from offices in the University administration. I am told approval will come but that key officials are occupied with more serious matters. I have the Institute's approval and encouragement to proceed, so we will be moving ahead right away. The first step will be the hiring of heads for two sections. We will kick off the strategic planning after those sections have their leaders in place.

These are good times at the ISGS. We have opportunities and options. We have enthusiasm and purpose, and we are looking forward to charting our future together.

Now I am going to move to the slides for a closer look at a couple of other important matters.