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Bruce Yardley appointed Chief Geologist

Bruce Yardley (Leeds University) has been appointed Chief Geologist by The Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (RWMD) of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Chartership news

Chartership Officer Bill Gaskarth reports on a projected new logo for use by CGeols, advice on applications and company training schemes

Climate Change Statement Addendum

The Society has published an addendum to 'Climate Change: Evidence from the Geological Record' (November 2010) taking account of new research

Cracking up in Lincolnshire

Oliver Pritchard, Stephen Hallett, and Timothy Farewell consider the role of soil science in maintaining the British 'evolved road'

Critical metals

Kathryn Goodenough* on a Society-sponsored hunt for the rare metals that underpin new technologies

Déja vu all over again

As Nina Morgan Discovers, the debate over HS2 is nothing new...

Done proud

Ted Nield hails the new refurbished Council Room as evidence that the Society is growing up

Earth Science Week 2014

Fellows - renew, vote for Council, and volunteer for Earth Science Week 2014!  Also - who is honoured in the Society's Awards and Medals 2014.

Fookes celebrated

Peter Fookes (Imperial College, London) celebrated at Society event in honour of Engineering Group Working Parties and their reports

Geology - poor relation?

When are University Earth Science departments going to shed their outmoded obsession with maths, physics and chemistry?

Nancy Tupholme

Nancy Tupholme, Librarian of the Society and the Royal Society, has died, reports Wendy Cawthorne.

Power, splendour and high camp

Ted Nield reviews the refurbishment of the Council Room, Burlington House

The Sir Archibald Geikie Archive at Haslemere Educational Museum

You can help the Haslemere Educational Museum to identify subjects in Sir Archibald Geikie's amazing field notebook sketches, writes John Betterton.

Top bananas

Who are the top 100 UK practising scientists?  The Science Council knows...

Not taking the shilling

The ‘privileged academic’ is an easy target – and while public and politicians expect us to ‘pay our way’, the consequences could be dire, says John Buckeridge *.

Geoscientist 22.06 July 2012

Buckeridge JohnIncreasingly, we as academics are expected to produce research outputs that can be quickly adopted by industry or business. In Australia as most western countries, the push is now not only to publish and ensure we are “relevant” but also to bring in supporting grants as pledges that our work is truly ‘important’. But focusing on grants rather than publications is a disingenuous objective. Not surprisingly, in many universities, especially in science and engineering schools, academics are becoming little more than consultants, carrying out tasks that may well improve process (and this is debatable) but no longer push the boundaries of knowledge.

By measuring performance through grants, university administrators believe they obtain a true measure of academic value. In some Australian universities there is now a scale that sets the level of grant funding that staff at each grade must win – for full professors, well into six figures! In a discussion with a university manager recently, I indicated that large grants were not likely to assist much in palaeobiology - indeed, palaeontologists succeed through observation, reflection, discussion and analysis. This takes time, but not necessarily vats of money. The corollary is that we are very capable of doing interesting science. 

For many years there has been concern about the poor productivity of some academics, some of whom had apparently failed to publish a single paper over long periods. However, adopting punitive systems to bring into line a minority is an exercise in poor management and cannot be tolerated or justified. What are universities really for? Surely nurturing scholarship and excellence; but should they be consultancies for business and industry? If they try to be all of these, what are the consequences? 

One is a loss of impartiality. If academics require industry support for grants (as is certainly the case in Australia), then we must serve these industries. This places severe strain on that old, established rôle of the university as critic and conscience of society. 

Society must learn the lessons of the past. The “publish or perish” doctrine will only raise the spectre of Vishwar Gupta, the Indian geologist whose flawed work has been exposed by New South Welshman Professor John Talent. What could drive anyone to do this? The bauble fame was a key driver. For a time his publications certainly enhanced his status, but the ultimate exposure of deception left a very sour taste, especially those who were duped and undeservedly tarred as co-authors. It also damaged the public integrity of scientists.

An environment for science must be free of bias or unreasonable pressure. Universities need to demonstrate that they contribute to public good, and applied science, medicine and engineering certainly achieve this. However a good university also seeks truths and pushes boundaries, unencumbered by allegiances. We must ensure that the easy road of delivering what the client asks, cannot be a rationale for academe – it is an abrogation of a higher responsibility. Rewarding academics upon grant income is simplistic, intellectually naïve and morally abhorrent.

* The author is Professor of Natural Resources Engineering, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, lecturing professional ethics and palaeobiology. He is the immediate past President of the International Union of Biological Sciences, and chair of its Ethics Commission.