Memories – History, Howlers and Highlights by Brit Wilkinson

In at the Deep End

Following wartime service in the RAF, and four and a half years study at Leeds University, at graduation I decided that improving British Agriculture presented an important national challenge in the post war era, so I joined the National Agricultural Advisory Service (NAAS) as a soil scientist at their Northern Region HQ, Newcastle upon Tyne in August 1952.

NAAS, created by the Post War Government in 1946, from all the advisory university specialists and local government advisers, the organisation comprised Regional University and Local Authority Agricultural and Horticultural Colleges plus Commercial Companies with Advisory and Research interests in the Industry. Farmers and horticulturalists were eager for technical advice and to use appropriate research findings. NAAS also encouraged advisers to show personal initiative so it developed an appropriate esprit de corp.

After working in this stimulating environment for onlyn2 years, in 1954 the BSSS decided to hold its Annual Conference at Newcastle University and I was appointed as the NAAS representative on the organising committee. Being thrown in at the deep end, it seemed logical also to become a BSSS member. The Soil Survey of England and Wales representative was Edward Compton and Dr Fred Hunter, Newcastle University, became the Conference Secretary. The Group organised the Conference filed excursions to study Northern soils, in addition to the lecture sessions. Conference participants were introduced to the restoration of the land after opencast coal mining and soils of the uplands. Cockle Park Research Station enabled the influence of long term grassland management on soil development, to be studied. All this was new and exciting for someone in the early stage of a career as a soil adviser.

Astonishingly the exercise was repeated in the South East Region based at Reading and Oxford universities, followed by the east Midlands Region based at Nottingham University. In all these BSSS Conferences NAAS, Soil Survey of England and Wales, Universities and other organisations expected significant man power plus laboratory and support resources to ensure worthwhile data was presented, through field excursions, lectures and demonstrations, for the Conference participants. The high quality Conference Excursion Booklets published became valuable for continuous professional development, though at the time the label was different. In the modern era, organisations have shied away from supporting such commitments, without direct financial support!!

Eventually I became a member of the BSSS Council so was able to support and contribute to the Society’s progressive development. On reflection, one becomes somewhat envious of the current financial and other resources at the disposal of the Society, for use in connection with Conferences and other activities. Members can be proud of the Society’s achievements in this and other directions.

Journal History

In the 1950/60’s the Society’s “Journal of Soil Science” was then published by the Oxford University Press (OUP) and members may be surprised to learn that BSSS actually PAID the OUP for its printing and its distribution to members. The Society received no income from OUP. When the members became aware of this situation you can imagine their astonishment! Was this shabby treatment or the era of naivety? Anyway, the Society quickly changed the publisher on the insistence of the membership. The rest is history.

Contrast this position with the present harmonious cooperation which exists between the Society and the Publishers of the current journals – The European Journal of Soil Science and Soil Use and Management.

Soil Use and Management

As an active member in the 1960’s, I strongly advocated with the others the need for the Society to publish a Journal specialising in papers reporting the applied research being undertaken by soil scientists. This proposal was not greeted with 100% enthusiasm by the membership so its supporters had to fight their corner and justify the proposition. Eventually the proposal won the day so the “Soil Use and Management” Jpournal was born and over the years justified the vision of the supporters, the Society, the pro-active Editors and the national and international Authors. It has progressed from strength to strength and become internationally recognised.

Professional Needs (IPSS)

In 1981 I retired from ADAS. In 1985 when enjoying life and working as an independent soil consultant, I received an approach from the then President, Prof Gordon Spoor, to join a working party to look at the Society proposition to create a professional organisation for soil scientists equivalent to those already in existence for other scientists, veterinary, engineers etc. It was also influenced by the UK’s impending membership of the European Union. I regarded the project as crucially important for the development of the soil science profession and accepted the position of Secretary. BSSS financed the proposal via as grant of £5,000 which incidentally was repaid, with interest, when BSSS and IPSS merged. Thus IPSS was conceived with a “clean sheet”. The Group immediately accepted that the organisation had to establish soil science as a recognised profession able to offer chartered status to its members. After much thought and effort by all concerned, IPSS was officially launched in 1991.

Other science professions studied were well established, had large memberships and Royal Charter status. The Royal Charter route was unavailable to smaller societies such as the BSSS. Various other avenues were pursued without success, then the Labour Government, in particular Lord Sainsbury, the then Science Minister, recognised the problem and established the Science Council which was given the authority to award Charter Status via its member organisations. IPSS was elected a member of the Council and through this route eventually acquired the facility to award the Professional Chartered Scientist Status, under strict Science Council rules and conditions. This was a tremendous step forward. Recent developments in terms of RSci and RSci Tech professional registrations have added further advances.

IPSS laid down the professional entry standards required of its members, covering their scientific/technical expertise. The academic and work experience eligibility requirements were also agreed for the different membership classes. Members also accepted a Code of Conduct.

Ultimately after a tremendous effort by its members, in 2011 the professional competency scheme “Working with Soil” was launched and accepted with wide acclaim and support. The Soil Science has thus progressed, as underlined by the increasing professional membership. The importance of this success cannot be exaggerated.

Relaxed Memories

I refer to a certain BSSS Conference based at Belfast, Northern Ireland where we visited the magnificent Giants Causeway and the Parliament Building at Stormont. The visit has always stuck in my memory, not just for its scientific value. The social highlight of the Conference was a dinner at Stormont, hosted by the NI Minister of Agriculture, which was a great success and the delegates were transported in high spirits from Belfast University to the Parliament Building in double decker buses.

After an interesting and very convivial evening, with excellent fine wine, the “temperature” of the occasion rose perceptibly among the delegates, particularly on the return bus journey. It so happened on this particular evening I was wearing a new trench coat mackintosh adorned with detachable extras, and after the riotous return journey I eventually became aware that certain of these extras had mysteriously disappeared, never to return. This coat then forever became a permanent memory of the way soil scientists behaved after particular memorable evenings. This “esteem” has stayed as a personal memory.