The collaborative ethos
"There can be some advantages not to be a geoscientists," says Tony Fallick, the former director of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) ...…
The collaborative ethos
"There can be some advantages not to be a geoscientist," says Tony Fallick, the former director of the former director of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) - someone who has done more than most to advance geoscience in Scotland in recent years. With a first degree in physics and a PhD in chemistry, he may not have seemed the obvious candidate for such a job, but his record at SUERC speaks for itself.
When he first arrived at the facility (then named the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre) in 1980, the nuclear reactor was the centre of attention and geoscientists were still in a minority. Fallick jokes that his main “selling point” to his new bosses was that he was good at fixing the machines (including mass spectrometers), but his scientific training and his “salesmanship” later proved just as important, as the Isotope Geology Unit where he was employed overtook the reactor (decommissioned in 1995) in terms of scientific importance.
By the time he left SUERC in 2012, Fallick had played a key role in the purchase of two accelerator mass spectrometers (AMS) and the centre had an international reputation for excellence in geoscience, providing world-class services to academic researchers throughout the UK as well as some of the best-known names in industry.
According to Fallick, one of the key factors in this transition was that SUERC developed a new business model which generated extra revenues from industry, taking full advantage of the oil boom in the 1980s by providing services for petroleum and reservoir geology. The centre also partnered with the companies who make the equipment it needs, including mass spectrometers. SUERC gets its hands on the latest devices at a discounted price by testing the machines at the prototype stage and providing a showcase seen by other potential customers. In addition, SUERC maximises productivity by unplugging bottlenecks in operations – whether caused by people or equipment. But above all, says Fallick, the centre has adopted a “collaborative ethos” which means that its success goes hand in hand with the success of the people who use it – what Fallick describes as “a large constituency of collaborators.”
This collaborative ethos played a critical role in attracting the funding which enabled the centre to buy its second AMS in 2003. The major challenge for the centre was how to get such powerful equipment to pay for itself – to generate extra capacity and subsidise research.
Fallick's approach was to pitch for the funding as part of a team with the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, pooling their resources to purchase a piece of equipment that none could afford on its own. In turn, this new equipment would be made available to other geoscientists in the UK, as well as industry clients, “providing access to as many tools as possible in one location,” rather than locking it up in a single department.
As the SUERC team wrote in their application for funding in 2003: “Imaginative funding mechanisms deserve imaginative proposals.” And this same approach helped to establish SAGES (the Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society) in 2006, pooling the resources of more than 200 leading researchers.
Fallick also feels very strongly that the role of technicians deserves more recognition. The business of the centre is to measure things, and to measure things you always need technicians – training them by reinvesting some of the earnings from industry clients. On top of this, Fallick believes it's important to visit universities to teach students about what goes on in the centre – for example, stable isotope applications – so that they are better prepared for their future careers as well as more aware of how the centre can help their research.
Since 1980, Fallick has been a major influence at SUERC, and the new equipment bought during his time as director has more than filled the gap of the reactor. “Even physicists did not realise that earth scientists used equipment on this scale,” says Fallick. The job of director requires someone who knows the technology and can “push the boundaries,” says Fallick, but knowing how to press the right financial and commercial buttons also helps.