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Geoethics - what do you think?

kghGeologists are not immune from ethical considerations, say David Ovadia* and Nic Bilham§

‘Geoethics’ is a term that is both obvious and abstruse. Unlike our colleagues in the medical and biological sciences, who are often subject to intense ethical controls, often prescribed in law, Earth scientists practise in a relatively unregulated environment.

Pharmaceutical companies have been known to cancel expensive drug development programmes if it emerges that the product may improve the quality of life but not its extent (or vice versa) because of fears of subsequent litigation. Geologists rarely think of themselves as subject to lawyers’ concerns in quite the same way.  But this does not mean that we are immune from ethical considerations.


A mapping geologist might be tempted to ignore an analysis or an outcrop that does not fit cleanly into the model being developed, or to make some convenient assumptions about the rocks in remote and inaccessible places beyond easy reach. A mining company geologist might be put under pressure by the board to be more optimistic about the economic viability of a mineral resource, especially when this could swing a critical investment, and perhaps preserve the person’s job.

The volcanologist responsible for advising government whether or not to order a massively expensive and disruptive evacuation is exposed to intense political, legal and media pressures, while an engineering geologist might feel it to be excessive and career-limiting caution to repeatedly refuse to sign off a bridge or tunnel scheme despite nagging doubts.


In the teaching environment, being ensconced with a group of people for long periods in a laboratory, field camp or research vessel requires the highest standards of ethical and moral behaviour by all parties. Geologists are occasionally exposed to attempts at bribery even though this is strictly illegal in many jurisdictions. And the impact of many geologists’ work on wider society is coming under increasing public scrutiny. Acting ethically at all times can be challenging.


The International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG) aims at creating awareness about the application of ethical principles to theoretical and practical aspects of geosciences. It is affiliated to the International Union of Geological Sciences and the Geological Society of London, among others, as a not-for-profit association with 1816 members in 123 countries, and has a network of 28 national sections, including the United Kingdom. Details can be found on its web site at W:

The present authors are interested to hear your views on what efforts the Geological Society, the IAPG and others should be put into creating and promoting greater ethical awareness, through discussions, meetings, education and enhanced codes of conduct; and on topics such as the desirability of regulatory or voluntary approaches to setting standards and spreading best practice, at national and global level, and how this may be achieved.

Geoethics overlaps with issues relating to professional standards, accreditation, indemnity and ‘ombudsmanship’, and no attempt is being made to distract from those important areas. We simply invite readers to share their views on geoethics, by contacting one or both of the authors.  We will report back at a later stage with a synthesis of opinion.


* Keyworth NG12 5ED. E:; § The Geological Society, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BG. E: