Thursday, 26 March 2015

Why I do not intend to leave money to the Society for Psychical Research

This may seem a surprising statement from someone who has been involved with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) for nearly 30 years, many of those as a Council member.  My affection for the Society and my commitment to its aims have not wavered, but I am concerned that the enormous sum bequeathed by Mr Nigel Buckmaster is not being used as wisely as it might, and I am not confident that any money I might leave would be used wisely either.

In what follows I must stress that I am not divulging any privileged information gleaned through SPR Council meetings.  Matters discussed within them are confidential, and although that principle has not always been honoured by some Council members, I feel I should restrict myself to what has appeared in the public domain – or can be deduced from it.  The necessity for deduction is because the official communications have not always been terribly explicit about how money will be used; you would think that there was some embarrassment about it judging by the lack of detail in the Society’s various announcements.  There is still enough information available to allow me to express my disquiet at some of the things that have occurred since the Buckmaster funds began flowing into the SPR’s coffers.

Exactly a year ago I wrote a couple of blog posts about the Buckmaster bequest, as a result of the publication of the SPR’s 2012-13 Annual Report and Statement of Accounts.  Now that the 2013-14 Report and Accounts (the reporting period ends on 30 September) are available, it is possible to see what further information has been supplied on the matters I wrote about then.  Buckmaster is prominent in the Report, starting with outgoing president Dr Richard Broughton in his own report alluding to the difficulties encountered within Council in deciding what to do with the money.  Unfortunately the Accounts feel very short on detail, and while they are acceptable to the auditors and other official bodies, the interested member might struggle to determine exactly how some of the Society’s resources are being expended.

In addition to the reference in his presidential section in the 2013-14 Annual Report Dr Broughton, who also chairs the Buckmaster Oversight Committee (BOC), contributes the BOC’s first annual report.  In it he briefly lists the four elements of the ‘Buckmaster project’:  1) the online encyclopaedia/books/website upgrade; 2) ‘a research and publication project to develop Systems Methodology as a new tool especially suited to the investigation of spontaneous cases’; 3) ‘updating and upgrading the Lexscien online library’; and 4) the creation of an online open data repository.  What is left goes into a building fund in the hope of finding a freehold property at some point.

Some of the Buckmaster initiatives are to be admired, though it might be felt that more money is being spent on them than should be necessary (some £350,000 on the publishing programme, for example).  In particular, even though the earlier CaseBase proposal promoted by David and Julie Rousseau, which was to gather a collection of what are considered to be the best paradigm-challenging cases, had been withdrawn because it was so controversial, leading to the formation of the BOC, David Rousseau (the Society’s Hon. Treasurer) and Julie Rousseau, also a Council member, seem to loom large in the disbursement of the Buckmaster money.

One sum that went to them – or rather their organisation C-FAR, the Centre for Fundamental and Anomalies Research – was £11,600 for the updating and upgrading of the Lexscien online library, which among other publications houses the SPR’s Proceedings and Journal back to 1882 (item 3 on Dr Broughton’s list of Buckmaster projects).  There had been embarrassing complaints about the online library’s usability for some time which reflected badly on the SPR, and it also stopped at 2008.  The new money will allow it to be brought up to date, but it does seem to be a huge amount of money to support a database that also brings in subscription money to C-FAR from non-SPR members.  A useful comparator is Marc Demarest’s IAPSOP database, which is growing at a phenomenal pace and houses far more content than the relatively static Lexscien.  IAPSOP is clearly done for love by volunteers, Lexscien is a more hard-headed enterprise.  C-FAR by the way does not itself seem to do much research as an organisation, despite its title (though I am happy to be corrected), but it does appear to be a registered company so must be handy for tax purposes.

Number 2 on Dr Broughton’s list is the Systems Methodology project, which Dr Broughton’s report specifies is being conducted by Dr Rousseau.  C-FAR was given £26,000 for this purpose, and as it is a neat third of the £78,000 noted in the SPR Buckmaster announcement of 24 March 2014, it is not difficult to figure out that this is the first of three tranches of £26,000 being paid to Dr Rousseau.  The total amount he is receiving, £78,000, seems clear, but not what he is doing for the money, which is nowhere elaborated.  What can be said with certainty is that despite the Systems Methodology project grant to Dr Rousseau being a grant for a project, it is not as one might have expected administered by the SPR’s Research Grants Committee (RGC), even though one would normally expect such an application to be made to them rather than direct to the BOC, and there is no indication that the BOC would entertain other grant applications.

I have previously noted that the annual sum paid to Dr Rousseau is completely out of scale with the average RGC award.  This year (2013-14) the RGC awarded a mere four grants ranging from £750 to £3,300, averaging £2,050 per applicant.  There were in addition seven grants awarded by the Society’s Survival Research Committee, ranging from three of £1,000 to one of £4,500, the seven averaging £2,663.  The total amount awarded to all eleven by both committees comes to £26,842.87, only slightly more than awarded to Dr Rousseau alone in the same year.  The £78,000 to be given to Dr Rousseau, something like a tenth of the Buckmaster bequest, is totally unlike the grants normally given to applicants.  That must be some Systems Methodology.  What can it possibly contain that is worth so much?  Half way through the 2014-15 reporting year and we are still none the wiser.

Finally, there is one item glaringly missing from the 2013-14 Report: any reference to the Research Activities Committee (RAC), which Dr Rousseau chaired, but which showed little sign of life in recent years apart from the promotion of the CaseBase project (as can be seen from Dr Rousseau’s notes as chair in previous Annual Reports).  I am particularly sorry to see it disappear because I was on Robert Morris’s steering group that resulted in the RAC’s formation in 1992.  Anybody wishing to see what the RAC was intended to do should read Professor Bernard Carr’s article written when he was its chair, ‘Research Activities in the SPR: New Initiatives’, which appeared in the SPR’s Paranormal Review in January 1999.  The committee had a wide remit, but this languished under Dr Rousseau’s chairmanship, and it is now no more.  The cynic might think that, the CaseBase initiative having been shelved, the RAC had fulfilled its function and was of no further interest to Dr Rousseau.  I’m sure it is a coincidence but the conjunction is unfortunate in terms of perception.  Anyway, it would have been nice to see some mention of its demise in the Annual Report, but the loss of a committee specifically dealing with research activities is not something one would necessarily wish to draw attention to as it suggests a certain poverty of ideas and lack of vigour.

To sum up, I had intended to leave money to the SPR.  Not on the scale of Nigel Buckmaster admittedly, but an amount nonetheless.  I shall certainly not do so now, because of the way I feel that the Buckmaster money is being so poorly utilised.  This is not my opinion alone.  I know of a couple of SPR members who feel the same way, and will not remember the SPR in their wills.  That is money that would have come in over the next few decades which will instead go to other homes.  The Society has done very well from legacies in the past, and they have got the organisation through some tough periods when outgoings otherwise outstripped income.  But times change, the profile of the membership has changed with them, and it cannot be assumed that legacies will always flow in as they have in the past.  If potential donors see that money is being frittered, they will look elsewhere.  There are many competing causes, and some who would once have considered putting the SPR in their wills could decide that other charities, such as Cancer Research, or the Alzheimer’s Society, will be more likely to use their money wisely.  That is what I am going to be doing.