The uneasy transition of the Arizona Geological Survey from freestanding state agency to the University of Arizona College of Science must now proceed without the leadership of its director, M. Lee Allison.
Allison, 68, died Aug. 16 after falling from a ladder and striking his head while painting at his home the previous Sunday.
Allison, appointed Arizona state geologist in December 2005, had managed to double the agency’s personnel and activities, despite a 45 percent drop in state support during his nearly 11-year tenure.
He had previously served as state geologist in Utah and Kansas.
This summer, after the Legislature and the governor transferred the Arizona Geological Survey to the UA without designated financial support, he was forced to cut staff and move the survey to smaller quarters that had no room for its archives and mining core samples.
“We’re tying to fit into the university. It’s an ongoing process and of course it’s devastating to have him taken from us just when we got it going,” said Phil Pearthree, a senior geologist with the survey, who has been named interim director.
Pearthree called Allison a “a pretty incredible guy who was interested in science and its interface with society. That was his core mission later in his career.”
Pearthree said Allison led the survey through the recession and a reduction in its state budget by expanding the agency’s mission. “He spearheaded a very significant expansion of our budget. He was a leader in getting more outside funding and taking on external projects.”
Allison’s wife, Ann Becker, said her husband had a mind as busy as a hummingbird. “I was always, always amazed at how his mind was going all the time — and when he could make a difference, he want ahead and did it.”
When Kansas authorities were trying to introduce “creation science” rather than evolution in science standards, Allison, the state’s geologist at the time, rallied to the cause, eventually founding the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science, Becker said.
When he was state geologist at Utah, he revealed that a planned Olympic venue was being built on a major geological fault.
Joaquin Ruiz, the UA’s vice president for innovation and strategy and dean of science, said Allison was a nationally known, highly respected geologist who was a leader in geoinformatics — making huge amounts of geological data available to interested parties.
Allison led the effort to convert more than a million paper files into searchable computer form, said Mike Conway, chief of geologic extension for the survey.
Allison also snared a large grant from the National Science Foundation for the early development of the EarthCube project, which seeks to meld massive amounts of geological data into a usable format for researchers.
“Lee was a visionary in many ways and he had focused the survey to be a leading organization in geoinformatics,” said Ruiz.
With Allison’s death, that focus is uncertain.
“I’m not exactly sure, without Lee’s leadership what the precise direction of the survey will be.
“It may be informatics and it may be that it transitions into a different direction. I really don’t know yet,” Ruiz said.
“Lee was a good man — he was a great man — he basically created a model for other agencies to follow,” said Steve Trussell, executive director of the Arizona Rock Products Association, which advocates for mining in Arizona.
“He had a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and he knew how to secure grant funding,” Trussell said.
Trussell said Allison was also effective in the agency’s core missions, such as mapping for minerals.
Under Allison, the Arizona Geological Survey completed its mapping of Earth fissures in the state and created a network of seismic sensors that made it possible to record small tremors and identify their sources.
Allison also led the effort to create the National Geothermal Data System.
Trussell and other users of the information the survey provides have been pushing for continued state funding of the survey, which was transferred to the university in June without a dedicated budget. The university is providing its budget for the coming year.
In an address earlier this month to the Arizona Geological Society, Allison said the need to become totally self-supporting by July 2017 could result in charging for information that he worked for years to disseminate.
“What is currently available for free, such as online earth fissure maps, mining files and publications, may soon be put behind a paywall,” he wrote in an abstract of the talk published on the society’s website.
Vacating state offices for smaller digs at the UA forced closure of the survey’s Phoenix branch, two libraries and the Arizona Experience Store, he wrote.
In addition, his staff had been reduced by one-third and future layoffs were anticipated.
His wife said Allison was “still peaking in his career” until this year when Gov. Doug Ducey pushed a consolidation bill through the Legislature that moved the survey to the UA but provided no specific money to the UA to fund the agency’s employees.
She said Allison felt he had failed the survey’s employees “because he wasn’t able to insulate them from the state’s horrors.”
Some legislators are now working to restore line-item funding to the survey, said Conway.
Trussell said his talks with the Governor’s Office make him confident that “the transition will be as seamless as possible. Going forward, they will figure it out. Obviously, we support a budget for the survey,” he said.
Ruiz said he remains “thrilled” that the survey is moving to the UA College of Science “because it can connect with geosciences and hydrology and the institute of mining.”
“We’re having meetings almost weekly to figure out how to deal with the budget,” he said.
Ruiz said selection of a new state geologist, formerly appointed by the governor, will now be made by the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s universities.
Allison held many national positions in geology. He was a member of the National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for Cyberinfrastructure and the North American member of the OneGeology Board of Directors, chair of the National Data Repositories Working Group and chair of the Geoinformatics Division of the Geological Society of America.
National awards included the Public Service Award of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Tanya Atwater “Encourage” Award from the Association for Women Geoscientists and the John T. Galey Jr. Award for Public Service.
No services will be held, but a symposium in his honor is being planned by the survey and local branches of geosciences societies, said Conway.
Becker asked that any remembrances be made to scholarship funds being set up by the Arizona Geological Society, the Association for Women Geoscientists and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst Department of Geosciences.
For information on how to contribute, see Allison’s blog at arizonageology.blogspot.com/