Governor Ducey proposes transferring Arizona Geological Survey to University of Arizona – Bad Idea

[This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in the Arizona Daily Independent.]

According to a post by State Geologist Dr. Lee Allison, Governor Ducey wants to end the Arizona Geological Survey as an independent agency and transfer it to the University of Arizona. Apparently, this was a surprise to both AZGS and UofA.

The Governor’s budget proposal states:

The Arizona Geological Survey was originally housed at the University of Arizona. While the Survey was formally established as an independent State agency in 1988, it retains strong collegial and logistical ties with University faculty and staff. Both engage in rigorous academic geoscience research that greatly benefits the state. For FY 2017, the Executive recommends consolidating the Arizona Geological Survey within the University of Arizona. This model, adopted by 20 states, is designed to enhance synergies by streamlining services and location of geological mapping data to better serve stakeholders. It presents potential for greater opportunities to successfully leverage research grant funding, can provide a direct pipeline of student researchers to the survey, and should help attract high-profile geologists.

The Executive recommends moving the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to the Department of Environmental Quality.

For some background, here is the mission of the Arizona Geological Survey:

Serve as a primary source of geologic information to enhance public understanding of the State’s geologic character, geologic hazards and mineral resources.

Inform, advise and assist the public in matters concerning the geological processes, materials and landscapes and the development and use of Arizona’s mineral resources. Encourage the prudent use of lands and mineral resources.

Provide technical advice and assistance in geology to other State and local governmental agencies engaged in projects in which the geologic setting, character or mineral resources of the State are involved. Provide technical advice and assistance in geology to industry toward the wise development and use of Arizona’s mineral and land resources.

The Arizona Geological Survey (AZGS) currently gets about 85% of its budget from outside grants and returns $4.50 for every state dollar spent according to their annual report. What will happen went AZGS is folded into the University bureaucracy?

AZGS provides many valuable services. You can get an idea of what they do from their main website: http://www.azgs.az.gov/ and from their most recent annual report: http://repository.azgs.az.gov/uri_gin/azgs/dlio/1666.

Read also a short history of AZGS at http://www.azgs.az.gov/history.shtml

Personally, I find great value in the AZGS program of scanning and digitizing out-of-print reports and unpublished data from donated private collections. These data are then provided online for free download. Their geologic hazards program informs the public of potential dangers from earthquakes, landslides, and earth fissures. AZGS is the lead agency coordinating a nationwide geothermal energy database.

I asked State Geologist Lee Allison for some comments, he said:

Jonathan, it’s my understanding UA only learned of this proposal a few days ago, so they have not had a chance to consider how they would assume the duties of the Survey if approved by the Legislature. They need to evaluate housing 800,000 pages of mining records, well cores, two geological libraries, publications (we are a publishing house), as well as our extensive online document and data repositories and services. AZGS maintains the state’s seismic monitoring network and is required to keep the online interactive earth fissure map up to date for use by the real estate-homebuilding-local planning communities. We are preparing a briefing paper for UA officials to summarize our assets – financial, physical, digital, and people – and duties, so they better assess how and where we would fit in that organization.

This shows that the consolidation would not be a simple task. Many of my geologist friends are against this proposal.

I spoke with other veterans of both eras of the geologic survey. The basic conclusion is that the reintegration is a very bad idea. Under the old university-controlled system, focus was on academic geology designed mainly to aid newly minted, tenure-tracked PhDs who had to establish a record of productivity . The survey was also adversely affected by political intrigues within the university system. As an independent agency, the AZGS is focused on public service, i.e., practical applied geology. There current products help home-owners, developers, industry, and other state agencies. Also, as you may guess, it’s about the money. Grant money goes to the contracted study and to “indirect costs.” The university system tends to syphon off much more “indirect costs” than does the independent agency. What kind of survey do you want?

Geologist David Briggs opines:

I have worked closely with the Arizona Geological Survey for many years. Today’s survey is considerably more responsive to the needs of Arizonans than it was when it was a part of the University of Arizona. As an small independent agency, it has been able to minimize its administrative costs and use much more of its limited budget to do its core mission.

I fear university administrative costs will consume much of the funding the Arizona Geological Survey receives from outside grants, leaving little to serve the citizens of Arizona.

Arizonans will receive a better return for their tax dollars if the Arizona Geological Survey remains an independent agency.

The Arizona Daily Star reported recently that “UA drastically cuts growth goals for research.” It looks like UofA is not in position to take on a major new project. Or would they like to have more money for “indirect costs”? I don’t know the motive for this move, but one geologist suggests that it is money. Current AZGS director Lee Allison is internationally known as a leader in creating geologic (and other) databases. His potential for bringing in lots of externally funded projects is high. That will mean lots of indirect cost dollars. In a time of shrinking State budgets those indirect cost dollars are of increasing importance. For that reason, the UofA may be somehow involved with the recommendation to move the AZGS, or at least would be willing to accommodate the Governor.

I also emailed Gov. Ducey and asked What prompted this move? Do you anticipate saving money? If so how much? I am a registered professional geologist and regard the AZGS working very well as is. As of this writing, I have received no response.

The change will require permission of the state legislature. AZGS duties are specified by State statute here. AZGS seems to be performing those specified duties quite nicely.

Updates:
According to Lee Allison’s Arizona Geology blog:

Arizona Geological Survey’s return on investment = 668%
Since 2011, the Arizona Geological Survey has successfully raised more than $35,800,000 in external research grants from federal, state, local, non-profit, and private sources. Over that same period our total cumulative state appropriation was $5,364,100, for a Return on Investment of $6.68 of income for every $1 of state funds. This compares favorably with top tier research centers across the country.

In addition, we have numerous funding proposals under review and have been told to expect new awards of at least $1.6 million this fiscal year. That would increase our ROI number.

We compiled these numbers for inclusion in briefing materials we are preparing for the University of Arizona to help them understand and evaluate Governor Ducey’s proposal to transfer the duties of the AZGS to the university.

These grant funds have been key to maintaining and even expanding state services despite significant state budget cuts during the Great Recession.

 

In my opinion, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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