Directing Bidston

Graham Alcock, 21 October 2016

I joined Bidston in 1972 and took early retirement in 2000, having survived five name changes (Institute of Coastal Oceanography and Tides, Institute of Oceanographic Sciences, Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, Centre for Coastal and Marine Science and back to the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory). Here are anecdotes about some of the Directors during that time.

I only met ICOT’s Director, Jack Rossiter, when he was chair of my interview panel in May 1972, because unfortunately he died before I was appointed. The subsequent ICOT Acting Director, Geoff Lennon, had a turn of phrase – “it occurs to me” – and that was used in my letter of appointment, suggesting that I might like to join a scientific cruise in September 1972, pre-dating my actual appointment date of 1 October. What Geoff omitted to say was that the cruise was on the RRS John Murray, an ex-fishing trawler rumoured to have been bought by NERC for £1, which had such a nasty rolling motion in anything higher than a Force 2 breeze that it was always difficult to encourage Bidston staff to go on it. That was my introduction to “wet” oceanography – subsequently I always preferred the “dry” oceanography remotely carried out by land-based radar and space-borne satellites.

The first of the frequent reorganisations of NERC’s marine science occurred in 1973, when Bidston became part of IOS, together with what had been the National Institute of Oceanography at Wormley and the Unit of Coastal Sedimentation at Taunton. Scientific rationalisation brought the Tides staff at Wormley to Bidston and David Cartwright was appointed as IOS Assistant Director.

David was a world-class researcher and an elected Fellow of the Royal Society; but as he said on his interview for The British Library’s “Voices of Science”, he “wasn’t temperamentally suited to getting too much involved with administration”. I remember attending an IOS meeting at Wormley to allocate funding for the year (in my capacity as responsible for contracted and commissioned research at Bidston), when David left early to catch his train back to Birkenhead before Bidston finances had been fully discussed and agreed. James Crease said: “I suppose we had better allocate some funds to Bidston”.

I worked on a number of projects for David and although he was the senior author of our joint papers he used the format of listing the authors in alphabetical order. For the George Deacon 70th Birthday commemorative volume of “Deep Sea Research”, we wrote a paper on our analysis and interpretation of telephone cable voltages across the English Channel to provide information on the ocean current flow. The DSR Editor knew of David but not me, and on his assumption that the first named author was the senior author, his acceptance letter (no emails then) to us was addressed to Professor Alcock; much to our amusement.

Another project that I worked on with David was the analysis of data from SEASAT – the first satellite dedicated to oceanography. In the 1970s, our visit to Venice for a SEASAT Workshop enabled David to indulge in two of his passions: railways (Liverpool – London – Calais – Venice is some train ride) and wine (his wife was French). A very good bottle consumed by us on the return rail journey was paid for using a pile of Italian Lire left over when we had discovered that our Hotel accommodation had been paid by the Workshop organisers.

After our successful campaign in the late 1980s against Bidston’s closure and transfer to Wormley, Bidston became autonomous and was renamed the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory. (The IOS Taunton site was closed and staff transferred to Bidston or Wormley.) Brian McCartney was appointed POL Director and, in my opinion, the next eight years were Bidston’s halcyon days: we reported directly to NERC HQ, without an intervening level of bureaucracy of IOS or later CCMS or NOC.

Brian always let Group and Project leaders have a full say at the Management Committee; especially at the annual allocation meeting (consequently it sometimes went on for two days); so I felt that if you inevitably didn’t get all the money or equipment that you had bid for, you still accepted his final decisions because you had had a fair hearing. Brian was also careful to include all “Prime-movers” (the researchers) in the vision and major decisions that directed our strategy. In those ways, I believe that he made sure that all staff felt that they had had some input in formulating the strategy that POL took under his Directorship, with ensuing collective responsibility and underpinning the Bidston “family” atmosphere that John Huthnance mentions in his article.

Brian had been Head of the Engineering Group at Wormley, so it was not surprising that technology development at Bidston thrived during his Directorship. Bidston became one of the few European laboratories with the capability of developing and deploying oceanographic instruments in the coastal zone, shallow or deep water. Together with our expertise in the analysis and interpretation of the data and the world-class hind-casting and fore-casting modelling expertise developed under Norman Heaps’ leadership, Bidston’s scientists and engineers were in great demand for European Community/Union oceanography projects. Not bad for an organisation later accused of scientific isolation because it was on a hill five miles away from Liverpool University.

Under Brian’s leadership, POL became the host laboratory for the North Sea Project, the first large “Community Research Project”, involving many other research institutes and university research departments. We developed a strategy of funding all our Laboratory Science and Technology Projects from a triple combination of Commissioned Research (mainly from the DoE, MAFF and MoD), EC/EU Programmes and the NERC Science Budget; giving us some financial stability.

Happy days!

With the movement of IOS Wormley to Southampton University in the 1990s, NERC carried out yet another reorganisation of its marine science, lumping its remaining oceanographic laboratories at Bidston, Oban and Plymouth, into a “Centre” for Coastal and Marine Science. Jackie McGlade was appointed to what I always considered was a poisoned chalice of a job as the CCMS Director. (CCMS was disbanded in 2000, the then NERC Chief Executive admitting that the CCMS experiment had failed.) Jackie faced a fair degree of hostility from some senior staff, particularly at Plymouth where her office was situated, as staff at the three previously autonomous laboratories tried to work out what exactly was the purpose of the “Centre”.

I worked closely with Jackie on aspects of commissioned research and scientific applications across CCMS and got on well with her. She tended to be quite open about what she felt (perhaps that’s what some senior CCMS staff didn’t like) and because of this I was probably the first Bidston staff member to find out about the proposed closure of Bidston and transfer to Liverpool; a decision that had been taken by the then Bidston Director, without, as far as I know, any consultation with Bidston staff (the Management Committee had been an early casualty of his appointment.) Jackie and I were travelling on the London Underground, back from a meeting with an Intellectual Property lawyer, when Jackie asked me what I thought about the plan to close Bidston and move everyone to Liverpool University. I was non-committal.

Frank Field, MP for Birkenhead, had been a main factor in NERC’s decision not to close Bidston in the 1980’s and I informed him of the decision. I was summoned to the Bidston Director’s office and told, in no uncertain terms, that he was the Director and made the decisions, which I had to obey as a member of his staff without discussion. I demurred. I took early retirement in 2000, having thoroughly enjoyed most of the time at Bidston and working for most of the Directors.

(The British Libraries’ “Voices of Science” is at http://www.bl.uk/voices-of-science/interviewees. As well as David Cartwright, other oceanographers interviewed are James Cease, Anthony Laughton, John Woods and Philip Woodworth.)

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