GSV in trouble
TAG December 2011, Newsletter Number 161, p. 7
For the past 160 years the Geological Survey of Victoria has been the government repository for the state’s geoscience knowledge. Will this continue? Anyone with an interest in the future of geoscience knowledge in Australia needs to read this.
At the start of 2011, GeoScience Victoria (the fancy new name for the GSV) was in good shape, benefiting from a restructure in the mid-2000s which gave it a more rigorous science focus. This was soon to change when the present Executive Director took over the reins of the Earth Resources Development Division of the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, of which GSV was a part.
Before the disaster
Over the past decade, GSV’s primary aim focused on converting its vast store of geosciences information into digital format and providing this, free of charge, to the public. One large investment was in the GeoData.Vic project, of which the most visible result is the Seamless Geology project, with an involvement of nearly a third of the staff, and producing the first surface geology dataset at 1:250 000 scale across the state that has none of those annoying map border “faults’: One component of GeoData.Vic is the GSIML mark-up language project for the international delivery of geoscience data, in which GSV was a world leader. As well, Tim Rawling, one of Australia’s foremost 3-D geoscientists, was in charge of the world-leading 3-D Victoria geology project. This project aims for a three- dimensional geological model of the entire state and was in the final stages of delivery at the start of 2011. With structures modeled down to the Moho, the main data sources were the pmd-crc and AUSCOPE deep seismic profiles that run across just over a half of the state’s Paleozoic basement. Already these profiles had brought about a completely new interpretation of the structure of the Paleozoic crust, of the tectonic models that created it, and models of ore genesis. With the remainder of the state yet to be done, GSV staff were excited about what the future would hold.
The GSV built a dedicated projection room in which 3-D models can be viewed by staff and others working on the models. Clients, especially non- geologists, regularly emerged awestruck from the room. A multiplicity of data sources went into building the models; mapping, boreholes, deep and shallow seismic data, which linked offshore and onshore basin models. Although still preliminary, the model is an ideal framework for future work, and has been acclaimed by visiting geologists and management from, amongst others, the British and US Geological Surveys. They proclaimed it — and the workflow that had produced it — as possibly the best of their type in existence and were amazed at the small size of the project team who had pulled it all together. It was thought so special that the President of Hungary insisted on a visit during his recent trip to Australia. Yet another project, the Gold Undercover initiative, had produced 25 scientific reports into gold-associated alteration styles, distribution models, geochemistry, etc. The Rediscover Victoria project saw government funding part of the cost of greenfields drilling by private companies. Major papers on these exciting emerging geological results have been published, with more to come. Areas for targeted mapping by the regional geology mapping team were being planned. And GSV was an outward-looking organisation, collaborating with partners like Geoscience Australia, CSIRO, ANU, Monash, Melbourne, and Adelaide universities, AUSCOPE, CO2-CRC, 3D-Geo, ASP, and other state surveys. All this was directed to a better understanding of Victorian mineralisation, which would in turn lead to more discoveries.
GSV industry engagement was growing, and was digesting views from the outside such as the results of 2011 Frazer Institute reports which showed that Victoria was perceived as data-rich but discovery potential-poor for metals (showing that more high quality mapping and research were needed), while ranking it among the world’s best places to operate for petroleum companies. It was this background and these issues that faced the division under the new management.
Now fast—forward to October 2011. The GSV is no more. It’s been replaced by the shortest possible acronym, P&E (Prospectivity and Exploration), into which some GSV staff have been absorbed with redefined jobs, while others are scattered across the restructured Earth Resources Development Division, also with redefined roles. The former acting director of GSV is now the leader of the P&E group and, one year after his job interview, still in an acting role and allowed little authority. The division has breached contracts with some scientific collaborators, such as the CSIRO, and verbal work agreements, for example with the Australian School of Petroleum. Other collaborations continue, some informally and only because remaining P&E staff truly believes in the value of these projects. Development of GSV database management and delivery systems has virtually ceased. The fate of the GSIML project is unknown, with no further involvement by GSV. Scientific staff are pouring out of the organisation, resigning at a rate of one geoscientist/ geospatial expert/IT and/or Business Analyst every ten days through all of July, August and into September 2011. As of mid-October, nine permanent scientific staff have resigned, with more on the way. Contracts were not renewed for half a dozen additional scientific staff. Others are on stress leave. Two emeritus positions were terminated, saving the organisation nothing but losing it over 80 person years of knowledge and skills. The 3-D project team is but a memory, with no specialised management and little knowledge and skill left for building future 3-D models. The regional mapping team, one of the GSV’s great former strengths, is reduced to a single geologist. With the loss thus far of more than 140 person-years of state-specific geological knowledge, the opportunity to mentor incoming staff to rebuild for the future has all but evaporated. Geospatial expertise and the knowledge required to access and/or deliver data, including the GSV’s celebrated 3-D models, from an incomplete GSV database system is in the hands of the few remaining demotivated staff.
So what happened?
It appears that the aim of the restructuring of the Earth Resources Development Division was to change it into a super— exploration organisation, helping multinational companies to find “elephants” (management-speak for super— sized ore deposits). The new focus is on marketing, with management stating that it is interested in “engagement with industry”, in reality almost exclusively with the largest miners. In reality, most of Victoria’s current minerals clients are small to middle-sized and so they are ignored. With this new focus has come a devaluing of further geoscience data gathering, ignoring the fact that it is this data gathering and synthesis that will give a new understanding of the controls behind Victoria’s major mineral deposits — essential for highlighting future areas of interest for all explorers, large and small.
Staff complaints that the two were incompatible fell on deaf ears — they were dismissed as “whingeing” from the “old guard” stick-in-the-muds who don’t like change and are “unaligned” with the directions of the new organisation. Some were even called “un-Australian’. One attempt to force staff into the right mode of thinking was by spending $80 000 on “charisma” training by the US-based Vanto Group. When this was leaked to The Age it was stopped by higher management.
Scientific staff are leaving Earth Resources Development Division because it has been made crystal clear that they are no longer seen as important assets in an organisation that “only needs to be good enough not to be laughed out of the room’. Geoscientists are told repeatedly that their field of expertise and endeavor is “not a science” (even though the research of the last decade of the GSV is dismissed as “science for science’s sake”— some might take these views as inconsistent). Formal position descriptions of senior science positions have morphed into inane marketing-babble such as a role function that only “ensures a well-fed pipeline of exploration opportunities”. Add to this an aggressive and confrontational micro-management style and goalposts that are continually on the move, the appeal of building a career elsewhere becomes difficult to resist.
The degree of staff dissatisfaction has been measured. Government departments survey their staff every year about work conditions and staff satisfaction. Previous GSV managements have been proud that their staff have given their organisation high ratings for morale and staff engagement over many years and these results have been widely publicised. Several such surveys were carried out in early 2011 during the restructure. This time, however, the results are treated as if they were State Secrets, with staff requests to see the results meeting a wall of silence. The rumour is that they were “catastrophic” and that “no one had ever seen anything like it”. If so, no wonder the senior management will not release them.
Where to from here?
The future of government Earth Science in Victoria looks grim. A great deal of in-house geoscience expertise has already gone, when geoscience for the greater public good may be more important than ever. This makes a joke of the much- trumpeted policy of mentoring and succession planning. If the Survey is to be resurrected, probably the greatest need will be for a change in management style in the upper echelons of the Department of Primary Industries. So far their approach throughout this affair seems to have been “hands-off”, a factor that has probably had most influence on the precipitous decline in staff morale. Some of those responsible have now moved on, leaving the mess for their successors. Perhaps this will make it easier for their successors to change course. Let’s hope they grasp the opportunity, for it is clear that a resurrection is needed. The Financial Review (8 October) discussed the current poor state of mining in Victoria, and cited industry representatives who thought that a “geological survey” and “fresh ideas and fresh data” were critical to turning the state of the industry around.
Formerly DPI Victoria
Editor: The Executive Director’s appointment was terminated on 4 November 2011.