Wednesday, 26 March 2014

‘SPR announces Buckmaster Legacy’

I didn’t think I would be returning to the matter of the Buckmaster money left to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), quite so soon.  The SPR circulated its 2012-13 Annual Report and Accounts last week, with information on the Buckmaster legacy, and it has just announced, now that the ‘controversial’ CaseBase proposal championed by Dr David Rousseau has been withdrawn, what it plans to do with the money instead.  An email was sent to SPR members on 24 March, and the text repeated on its website.

After a brief run-down of the contents of Mr Buckmaster’s will, and how much his legacy is worth, the message rightly points out that the final total is far beyond what Mr Buckmaster envisaged bequeathing to the SPR.  The sheer amount has created a bit of a problem in finding ways to spend it in keeping with the will’s spirit, which essentially was to provide information on psychical research in various ways, the rest going into a property fund.  Since the will was written there have been significant technical advances, particularly in information delivery and digital reading formats.  Bearing these issues in mind, the email goes on to outline how the SPR’s Council has decided to utilise the funds.

Some £350,000 (yes, that’s not a typo) will be spent on a programme of information dissemination, both hard copy and online.  There will be a major book and ebook containing case studies with a commentary bearing on survival issues; a free online encyclopaedia; a series of short popular books (plus ebook versions) on key aspects of psychical research; and an expanded SPR website with a stream of articles and commentaries.  There are a couple of subsidiary awards.  One is £10,000 for an upgrade to the Lexscien online library run by David and Julie Rousseau.  The online library is generally acknowledged to be somewhat creaky these days, and the content needs to be brought up to date (it currently stops at 2008).  The same amount will be spent on an online repository into which researchers can load their experimental data.  That just leaves a rather curious item which is worth quoting in full:

‘Council considers that the need to convince the scientific establishment of the relevance of psychical research is as important as educating the public. Accordingly, it has made a grant of £78,000 towards the creation and publication of a systematic methodology for anomalies research. It is intended that this methodology can be applied to other scientific disciplines besides psychical research, and help draw our field into the mainstream.’  I’ll come back to this.

The balance, which currently amounts to some £270,000 according to the announcement, is to be invested with a view to the future purchase of a freehold property.  The total amount of the Buckmaster funds is given vaguely as ‘in excess of £700,000’ but the total Buckmaster fund at the end of September 2013, according to Dr Rousseau’s Treasurer’s Report in the Annual Accounts, was £729,000, and six months later will be more, bearing in mind that none of it has been spent yet.  It should be ‘in excess’ of three-quarters of a million pounds by now.  What about research, a word enshrined in the SPR’s name? It’s in there somewhere: the announcement tells us that while the will doesn’t specifically provide for research, ‘it is intended that interest earned from the funds prior to disbursement will be used to increase the amounts available for research grants.’  We are promised further information on the Buckmaster projects in a future issue of the Journal and/or Paranormal Review.

These are promising developments, but there are some reservations (these comments are based entirely on information in the public domain, and not any privileged discussions).  It is impossible at this stage to determine whether the overall project, and its subsidiary components, will represent good value for money.  Will these initiatives be of benefit to the subject or will they fall on stony ground?  The encyclopaedia is most welcome given Wikipedia’s deficiencies, but there are already moves to produce alternatives, notably Citizendium and the World Institute for Scientific Exploration’s online Worldwide Resource Center, both of which seek to fulfil the same function.  It will be hard for the SPR to carve out a distinctive niche, but its name will help in providing an authoritative cachet to its product.

The books should be popular and there are a couple of possible routes here.  The volumes in the SPR’s Centenary series, published in 1982, are still discussed.  Or, if the ‘Very short introduction’ format is chosen, that will go down well in our attention-deficit age.  An expanded website with fresh content has to be useful.  These are all worthy efforts, but it is hard to see how they are going to cost more than the third of a million pounds that has been budgeted.  If the book programme is done right it should be making money, not costing it!

That leaves the £78,000, the reference to which feels a bit coy.   We are not told in the announcement who has trousered this extremely large sum, nor how the figure was arrived at.  In terms of the normal amounts of grants given by the SPR’s Research Grants Committee (RGC) this is far beyond what a researcher might expect to receive.  To put the figure in context, in the 2012-13 Annual Report the chair of the RGC reports that the SPR awarded five grants in the reporting year, ranging from £1,700 to £3,275, totalling £13,270.  If this is thought to be atypical, bear in mind that during 2011-12 the RGC also awarded five research grants, totalling £12,670.  These are miniscule figures compared to the £78,000.  You could make a lot of small grants with that money and stimulate the field in the process, so expectations must be extremely high that £78,000 will deliver an output commensurate with the investment.  So what will the recipient do with this sum?

It’s all dressed up to make it sound impressive and justify the amount.  It isn’t for hoi polloi, it is for the scientific establishment that will be immune to the other strands of the Buckmaster project which are merely for the purpose of ‘educating the public’.  Special measures, tailored to said scientists, are required in these exceptional circumstances.  This will take the form of ‘the creation and publication of a systematic methodology for anomalies research’.  Isn’t that what parapsychologists do anyway, one is tempted to ask.  What is the secret ingredient that can do what others have failed so signally to do in the past?  The description sounds a bit like Dr Rousseau’s ‘controversial’ CaseBase proposal, minus the data collection, and isn’t a million miles away from Dr Rousseau’s SPR Journal paper ‘Challenging the Paradigm Systematically: A New and Generic Approach to Classifying Anomalous Phenomena.’  Admittedly this is on a far smaller scale than CaseBase, but perhaps that was required to make it seem uncontroversial.  From this bland description it comes across sounding a bit like Mini-Me to CaseBase’s Dr Evil.

Perhaps the huge amount being spent on it will be worthwhile, if it works.  For the money we will get a ‘methodology [that] can be applied to other scientific disciplines besides psychical research, and help draw our field into the mainstream.’  In other words, it is, in the words of Dr Rousseau’s JSPR paper, a ‘generic approach to classifying anomalous phenomena.’  In theory that sounds good, and would be £78,000 well spent.  But what if it fails to convince that hard-to-satisfy scientific establishment, and psychical research finds itself still outside the mainstream?  It will be exactly where it is now, just £78,000 poorer.

Given the risk, one has to ask, ‘Nice in theory, but couldn’t it be done cheaper?’  Are this and the publications strand so expensive simply because of the amount of cash washing round?  It would be great to hear precisely what will be delivered, and by whom, for that generous £78,000, and how sufficient confidence has been generated to justify investing so much for what appears to be an extremely speculative outcome.  At the very least an assurance that this ‘grant’ application was peer-reviewed should be provided, in order to prevent charges of cronyism – whoever the recipient is – being bandied about.

In addition to the general outline of how the money will be spent, the SPR announcement also included an advertisement for the post of commissioning editor for the publishing strand.  Claiming to be ‘modestly remunerated’, it pays about £15,000 a year for three to four years.  There are also freelance opportunities to work on publications and the website.  I’m sure these will prove very popular.

It has taken a while to get to this point, and there is a long way still to go before we have a firm idea whether the Buckmaster money will be spent wisely on these schemes.  One hopes it is, for three reasons.  Firstly, such largesse comes along very rarely, so it is necessary to make sure that when it does it is not wasted.  Secondly, large bequests will probably get even rarer thanks to changing economic circumstances.  Money that might have been given to the SPR could in future be eaten up by care home fees and other requirements of a population that is living longer than in the past.

Thirdly, should money be available, and a potential donor is wondering whether the SPR is a worthy recipient, if Buckmaster proves to be poor value they might think, ‘hang on, I’d love to see my money spent exploring psi and attempting to engineer a paradigm shift, but didn’t they get £750,000 from that Buckmaster chap, and mostly squander it?  I’ll give my money to help eradicate malaria, or fund research on Alzheimer’s instead.’  I know where my money would go.  There are greater dangers here than merely wasting the Buckmaster cash on unfulfilled potential, or on what might turn out to be vanity projects.

Members will soon get a chance to enquire into these matters.  The SPR’s Annual General Meeting is coming up on Saturday 26 April, and there will be an opportunity to ask about the disbursement of the Buckmaster legacy.  One hopes that more specific information will be forthcoming then, as well as later in the SPR’s publications.  I’ll be coming back to this issue as the Buckmaster programmes roll out and we can better judge progress, and value, against expenditure.