Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Update on CaseBase and the Society for Psychical Research’s Buckmaster Bequest

Information on what is happening to the extremely generous bequest that the late Mr Nigel Buckmaster made to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) has been sketchy in the extreme.  The latest Report and Accounts (covering the period 1 October 2012 to 30 September 2013) has just been released by the SPR.  In it, the SPR’s Hon. Treasurer, Dr David Rousseau, refers to the Buckmaster legacy in his summary of the Society’s financial position:

During the year we also received the final disbursement from the estate of Mr Nigel Buckmaster, bringing the total legacy received up to £658k … Project proposals are still under development at the present stage, and no awards were made from the Fund during the year.  Under investment the Buckmaster Fund grew by £70k, ending the year 11% up at £729k. (p.12)

So it’s now worth nearly three-quarters of a million pounds, a sum that could do a lot for the subject.  Almost exactly a year ago I wrote about Dr Rousseau’s CaseBase project, which was eyeing up the Buckmaster money.  Here is what Dr Rousseau, writing as chair of the SPR’s Research Activities Committee (RAC), said about CaseBase in the SPR’s Annual Report covering the period October 2011 to September 2012, released in March 2013, (a certain blurring of lines of demarcation between his CaseBase project and the SPR’s RAC is clearly evident):
Kuhnexus CaseBase: We [i.e. the RAC] continue to support this project, which is aimed at collating the best cases in every class of anomalous phenomena relevant to psychical research. The project team ... continue to develop the project framework and collect relevant cases, and anticipate that the collection will one day be made available as an on-line resource...

As reported last year, a generous bequest towards this project has been made by the late Mr. Nigel Buckmaster ... The funded project will be a significant undertaking, but given the preparatory work already done is it is likely to gain momentum quickly ... It is anticipated that the research resources established under this project will bring new momentum to psychical research and establish psychical research’s significance to a wide range of important open issues in the orthodox worldview.

Where the neologism ‘Kuhnexus’ comes in is that the CaseBase database has been dubbed The Kuhnexus by Dr Rousseau's team, with potentially paradigm-shifting anomalies referred to as ‘Kuhnia’, in honour of Thomas Kuhn.  A certain complacency might be detected in the assumption that Mr Buckmaster’s bequest was solely concerned with promoting the CaseBase project, which it wasn’t, and that it was a foregone conclusion that the resources bequeathed by him to the SPR would be readily available for use by the CaseBase team.  That, we now discover from the latest Annual Report, was not so either.

Dr Rousseau’s RAC report in the 2012-13 Annual Report is almost entirely devoted to CaseBase and Buckmaster.  It transpires that the future of CaseBase had been ‘the main focus of the RAC’ over the previous year.  No other research activities undertaken by the RAC (a committee with eight members) during that period even rate a mention.  Dr Rousseau refers to the bequest of the Buckmaster funds to the SPR in late 2012, and continues laconically, ‘The CaseBase team submitted a proposal for funding the CaseBase project from this legacy, but it proved controversial and was then withdrawn.’

What exactly it was that suddenly proved to be controversial about a project discussed so extensively in the pages of the SPR’s publications and at its events without generating any feelings beyond mild scepticism is not specified.  Those who have been following the promotion of CaseBase by Dr Rousseau over the years might feel that his throwaway declaration deserves some elaboration.  Instead, he simply goes on the say that the SPR Council appointed a Buckmaster Legacy Committee (BLC) to draw up plans for projects to utilise the money:

At the time of writing this report (end of September 2013) it was expected that the BLC would present their proposals before the end of 2013.  Once projects are approved by the SPR Council the BLC would be superseded by a new Committee, the Buckmaster Oversight Committee, which would oversee the execution of these projects. (p.5)

At the same time Dr Rousseau took the opportunity to announce that he was standing down as the RAC’s chairman in that report, and as the Hon. Treasurer in his statement on the SPR’s financial position, though he does not say in either whether or not this was connected to the withdrawal of the ‘controversial’ CaseBase proposal.  The SPR’s President, Dr Richard Broughton, remarks in his 2012-13 ‘Report of the President’ that the CaseBase project ‘in the end proved to be too ambitious for Council at this stage, but the important project may yet find a suitable home.’ (p.4)  Just not with Mr Buckmaster’s money.

There the matter rests, until such times as the Buckmaster Oversight Committee decides to announce how it is spending this large sum.  I’m sure I’ll be returning to the issue if and when information becomes publicly available.  Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another year, until the 2013-14 Annual Report, to learn of these projects, and whether they represent good value for money for the Society.