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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cutting Basic Science

Air Date: Week of

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Jon Kalish reports on the controversy in scientific circles over the decision to eliminate the Math Geology Section of the Kansas Geological Survey.


CURWOOD: Basic scientific research is not aimed at making money or even curing diseases. It’s simply about expanding human knowledge. There may be commercial or social payoffs down the road, maybe not. As a result, basic research must compete for funds with projects that produce a tangible economic benefit, and sometimes basic science loses.

Some say that’s the case at the University of Kansas. After more than 40 years of service, the math geology section of the Kansas Geological Survey is set to be eliminated for budgetary reasons. Jon Kalish reports on the section’s contributions to earth science and the outcry to save it.

KALISH: Geological surveys collect scientific data on natural resources and landscape hazards in a given region, and some of the world’s best scientists in this field work for the Kansas Geological Survey. The survey’s math geology section, for example, is responsible for a number of groundbreaking advances. But come June 2003, its six full-time members will be out of work.

James Roberts, associate vice provost for the University of Kansas, which administers the survey, says the cutbacks are needed because the program faces a quarter million dollar shortfall next year.

ROBERTS: We approach the cuts in a strategic way rather than trying to butter-spread them and uniformly hurt everyone. We took a strategic approach of identifying units that contributed least to the research mission of the university. It became a matter of simply saying where can we cause the least impact to the mission of the survey and the University of Kansas, and that was the way the decision was made.

KALISH: The decision to disband the section was obvious to survey director Lee Allison. He claims that of all the survey sections, math geology has garnered little in the way of outside contracts and grants. Allison argues that while its contributions are important scientifically, the section is clearly not as critical as those sections that deal exclusively with petroleum exploration, groundwater management, mining and geological hazards.

ALLISON: If you look at what our charter in the state statutes requires, and that’s to do investigations into the geology of Kansas, with a special emphasis on those things of economic importance. It was not a difficult recognition that math geology was the least critical to our core mission. Doing basic research with an international flavor certainly advances the scientific community, but it’s really not critical to us carrying out our core mission.

KALISH: Dismissing the math geology section’s work as basic research with an international flavor outraged the close-knit six-member section, which has characterized Allison’s justification of the disbandment as intellectually dishonest.

Supporters of the section say its research effort has been of extraordinary significance and point to the group’s accomplishments. They include programming the first successful digital mapping software, creating a geological database used by the Kansas Highway Department, and developing a program that became the worldwide standard for oil and gas well log analysis.

Statistical methods developed by the math geology section are now used in climate studies and for measuring ground water in Kansas. The unit’s work has also been applicable in national defense. Research by the section is being used to detect tunnels and assist vehicles in remote areas using sensors.

DAVIS: Forty years of loyal service to the University and the survey and $2.75 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

KALISH: John Davis is the chief of the mathematical geology section. In addition to benefiting earth sciences in general, he says the section’s work has had practical applications that benefited the state of Kansas.

DAVIS: For instance, the log analysis package is used by all of the Kansas producers who are involved in petroleum exploration and who do well log analysis. The mapping programs which we have developed are widely used in academic institutions in Kansas and in other government agencies and corporations which use computers and do mapping.

KALISH: In a resolution passed at its annual convention this September, the International Association for Mathematical Geology urged the University of Kansas to reverse its decision to terminate the math geology section. Dan Merriam is a retired professor who co-founded the math geology section. For the last five years he has volunteered as a geological mapper for the survey.

MERRIAM: This group is a basic function in the survey and without them we’re crippled on some of the research we can do. I just don’t know quite how we’re going to handle this. We lost our statistician, one of our two engineers, we lost our log analyst, we lost a computer scientist that works in hydrology, we lost an excellent editor and research assistant. So it’s going to cripple us a little bit.

KALISH: Survey director Lee Allison agrees that the loss of the math geology section will hamper the survey’s ability to do its job.

ALLISON: It’s a painful, difficult decision to make and it’s not helping us do our jobs better, it’s doing just the opposite.

KALISH: The University of Kansas stands to lose more than a million dollars if it abolishes the math geology section. John Harbaugh, an alumnus of the school and the co-founder of the section, is so upset with the planned disbandment he’s threatening to withdraw his bequest of more than a million dollars to the university. Harbaugh has met and corresponded with the university’s top administrators in an effort to rectify what he’s called an egregious situation. Once again, section chief John Davis.

DAVIS: To abolish a proven successful group on specious grounds when without doubt there are alternatives that could address the financial difficulties seems to me to be a terrible injustice.

KALISH: Two of the math geology section’s six members have been offered positions elsewhere in the Kansas Geological Survey, and the third is said to be under consideration for a position at a national laboratory.

For Living on Earth, I’m John Kalish.

CURWOOD: Peter Rabbit celebrates his 100th birthday this year, but Beatrix Potter, who created the story of the mischievous bunny, had another passion: the English landscape that inspired her writing.

LEAR: In the country she was able to wander at will and to discover at will and to be away from her family and nature was the key to her independence, and it starts very, very early. It starts at age five or six.

GIRL (READING POTTER’S LETTER): My dear Papa, things are not nearly so far on here as I expected. I don’t think the bushes are so green as those in the park in London. We hardly found any primroses as they’re only just coming up.

CURWOOD: Starting Monday, November 25th, visit the Living on Earth website for drawings and readings from Beatrix Potter’s work and photos of the countryside that inspired it. You can also curl up and enjoy two full-length readings from the tales of the flopsy bunnies. That’s loe.org every day next week for the other English Potter.

You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.



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