I attended the 3 hour virtual summit on the Future of Geoscience hosted by the Geological Society of London today (10th June 2020). Over 1,000 people attended from as far afield as Indonesia, Pakistan, Canada and Milton Keynes! It was excellently led by Tom Backhouse and joined by a range of people representing different areas of geoscience. It is impossible to do justice to the range of topics discussed in an inspiring, rich and nuanced debate – using the UK as a case study; the start of a process. I have written this using the words of the participants who are listed along with links at the end.
Geology as a subject is in crisis. Crowded out of the school curriculum, seen by many, particularly young people, as a dirty science, due to perceptions driven by the oil & gas and mining industries and movements such as Extinction Rebellion. The discipline has diversity problems. The geoscience discipline may have become too narrow and lacks the skills to tackle the broadening complex environment. There has been an unprecedented decline in people studying geoscience at both A level and University level, 43% less than only five years ago. If this continues, societies’ next generation of geoscience expertise will be virtually gone in a decade. We are facing an extinction level event in geosciences. There is a need to collectively understand and step up to these challenges.
The relevance of geosciences
Climate change is arguably the biggest problem facing global society today. Geoscientists are fundamental to fighting climate change and decarbonization. Society needs geoscientists to find materials for low carbon energy. Clays for brick houses, components for wind farms as well as predicting volcanic eruptions. If something has not been grown, it must have been mined. Plastics have environmental problems, but not all plastics are bad for society. In cities, 60% of the urban space for 2030 has yet to be built, this is likely to include subterranean aspects ‘deep city’ presenting tremendous transformation challenges and geoscientists have role to play.
Exploration geoscience for water, minerals, hydrocarbons, heat, disposal (CCS, radioactive waste) will be crucial for the future. Carbon capture is another major technical challenge we are going to face in next decades. If we are to be successful, we need people interested and knowledgeable about the subsurface, the hidden realm of the geoscientist. This distinguishes geoscientists ‘down there’ from geographers ‘up there’.
Building a clear message and social engagement
There is a case for a radical reboot of geology. Geology 2.0. Searches of images of geology in Google return empty landscapes – it is arguably an exclusive club – with no link to society. We need a root and branch reboot to become more people centric.
People most affected need to be brought into the conversation. Reimagination. As Hutton stated we need to understand the earth because we want it to be useful. There may be a need to position geoscience as enabler not hinderance to sustainable development. Geoscience is vital for everyday lives. Renewables has a favourable perception with the public, yet we cannot switch to renewables without a step change in mining. We need to raise the awareness of the raw materials needed to combat climate change and embrace social sciences. There are some great examples of outreach into the community, we need to do more.
More mining will be needed to build these low carbon technologies such as wind farms, batteries, electric cars. Using Copper as an example, we will need to mine in the next 50 years the same amount that we mined in the past 500 years. Geoscientists are the essential key workers to get us through energy transition and decarbonisation. Geoscientists are also ‘earth stewards’. For example, 30% of the world’s lithium reserves lie in Bolivia. We will need many of these materials in the future. Geo-ethics is becoming key. We need to stand back and think what is the purpose of geoscience in the modern world. Deeply ethical, social justice and equity.
The discipline still has many (disproportionate) white men over 50 in positions of power, these need to drive change. Representation from minorities is poorer in the Geosciences compared to other sciences. Mentoring, helping drive inclusivity and diversity. Whilst strides have been made in the past ten years towards gender and BAME equality, we are not there yet by some way. Studies have shown that companies in top quartile for diversity and inclusivity in their executive teams more likely to provide better business performance. More must be done.
Need to target people from different backgrounds, address middle class bias. Engage with children in cities, who may not have been introduced to geoscience compared to others in different locations. The Geological Society of London has around 10,000 to 12,000 fellows – we are the society, so all have responsibility. Need for personal and collective responsibility (as well as leadership from societies). Outreach, teaching, creating a team in industry – all have opportunities to do better.
How do we embed ‘training’ in our curriculum? Geoscientists not trained to communicate geoscience to public or other disciplines (social science, anthropologists, engineering). Concern that the way the curriculum is setup, geosciences disappears too early for most young people, left with only the negative perceptions from media and not balanced with the role it has to play to create a sustainable future for society. Geology taught as part of Geography, for example. A need to ensure teachers have the geoscience knowledge to teach with confidence.
At a young age, there are few issues inspiring young people; dinosaurs, volcanoes, fossils. Crucial age is 13, 14 and 15 choosing subjects they are going to study for the rest of their lives. We could disseminate geology across the disciplines (badge it) integrate it with environmental science – earth & environmental science. Options. Around 40% of geologists doing ‘A’ level do it at university level. Real critical loss is AS, when you had 4 A levels you could afford to drop one. Dragged many people into ‘geology’, they enjoyed it more than they thought, inspired perhaps by a teacher, then kept doing it.
Geoscientists need a stronger voice in policy spheres, what is discussed in mainstream media reflects what is discussed in those spheres. In United Nations (UN) conferences discussing energy, clean water, cities, sustainable consumption the geoscience community is often missing.
Failure of central lobbying to keep geoscience key part of core curriculum. Tinkering with curriculum may help but we need strategic policy integration. There are certain measuring processes in schools that mean geoscience specific GCSE’s may be difficult to introduce.
Driving innovation through big open data and multi-disciplinary integration
Geoscientist are taught to interpret the gaps, joining the dots from all those varied and mixed inputs into information, knowledge and then insight. It has taken some of the greatest scientific minds to understand the earth system, driven by our needs. In 2020, unlike other sciences and industries, we may not have embraced modern ways of influencing and communicating.
There are barriers to digital transformation, access to open data. What we have seen in other industries (e.g. transport for London) when made open, created a whole ecosystem of start-ups. A lot of geoscience data is not available, UK is in perhaps a privileged position (e.g. OGA, BGS) in public domain. As you move to other countries, many have not opened up Geoscience datasets. Opening up data should be one of our key missions. We are at the infancy of machine learning in our discipline.
If we can take all our knowledge and make it available – we can inspire a next generation. We have a wealth of geoscientific knowledge. No easy and practical way to access it at scale. May be left out of some of most important conversations in human history. Need to turn our knowledge into actionable insight for influence at the top table, with non-geoscience businesses. In banking and finance. Geoscience can be (is) high tech and cool, it is more than just walking around a desert with a hammer. Embrace change and promote positive disruption. Need to make discipline interesting and relevant. Suggestions to move from study of ‘detail’ which facilitates more boundaries, to cross discipline – focusing on solving bigger picture.
Contributors and Summit Panel
Nick Rogers, Tom Backhouse, Lucy Crane, Joel Gill, Ben Lepley, Helen Smyth, Holger Kessler, Rosina Smith, Francis Cram, Iain Stewart, Marie Cowan, Catherine Owen, Natasha Dowey, Alicia Newton
Geographical Association Physical Geography Special Interest Group