Product has been added to the basket

Two years before the mast

Shilston2resized.JPGThree years ago, the Society elected David Shilston as President – its first to hail from Engineering Geology.  Society reporter Dawne Riddle met up with him at the Café Richoux to find out how he felt it all went.

At the start of David’s tenure as President, after a year ‘apron stringing’ as President Designate, he said he had three main aims: to focus on education and training, to help undergraduates get jobs, and to raise and diversify the take-up of Chartership.  I asked him first how he feels he has delivered these.

“My three aims ...are linked: they form a ‘pipeline’ of training and professional development for our Fellows and prospective Fellows.  At the start of the pipeline, we need to improve awareness within the secondary school system of the subject called (variously!) geology, geoscience or Earth science, and awareness that what someone chooses at GCSE or A Level/Scottish Higher can inadvertently limit their scope to study Geology at University. 

“Some subjects, like engineering, are taught first at undergraduate level and not at school.  Geology is taught in a few schools, but our emphasis has been to draw the attention of all pupils to geology as a possible course of university study, for which ideally candidates will have a good background in science and mathematics. 

 “My personal activities as President fit within a broader spectrum of Society activities, of course.  I have encouraged a number of initiatives or continuing activities, often by attending in person or by oiling the wheels behind the scenes.  For example, the Society’s annual Schools Geology and Early Career Geologist competitions now have national finals.  I was on the judging panel and helped present the awards afterwards.

 “As for the ‘pipeline’ in secondary schools, I participated in last year’s Geoscience Education Academy and met delegates at this four-day training course, which is run by the Society’s Education Officers, for science teachers who have no geology background yet find themselves having to teach geology as part of the National Curriculum.  The Academy is sponsored by BP; it is held at Burlington House, and led by two very experienced geology teachers.  Much interactive work was done and ‘tricks of the trade’ discussed.  On the Saturday, Prof. Iain Stewart gave a guest lecture on communicating geology to the general public, topic on which he is well-qualified to advise.

“Moving further along the pipeline, our outreach to undergraduates has increased via the Society’s annual Careers Days.  These are long standing but have grown an extra event in Edinburgh, adding to the well-established (and popular) events in the Midlands and SW England.  These were visited by over 500 students this year from a wide variety of geology degree courses. 

“These events aim to introduce students to employment opportunities and to make them aware that in some areas of geoscience an undergraduate degree is not enough and that a further qualification at Masters level or beyond is necessary for employment.  I have supported Careers Days for many years – they fall within the remit of the Society’s Professional Secretary, a post I held for three years.

“Talking to students and working Earth scientists, I detect a growing emphasis on professionalism, and the need for life-long learning and professional validation (which means being recognised by your peers as ‘competent’).  The Society’s specialist groups (like the Engineering Group, which I belong to) provide a ready means of staying updated - and of course the Society awards the titles of CGeol and CSci. 

“Usually, candidates for Chartership are in the early years of their  post-graduation professional experience.  Last year we introduced another ‘pathway’ to Chartership, a sort of fast track for Fellows who already have over 20 years’ professional experience.  It has been a great success.  It recognises the seniority and experience of applicants, but standards have not changed.  This ‘20+’ pathway was intended to attract senior members of industry and academe – a sector of the demographic where Chartership is under-represented.  It has begun to redress this imbalance and (to my great pleasure) is attracting people working in sectors where Chartership is already strong, but who had been ‘left behind’.

 “I have also re-established or reinforced the Society’s links with organisations that attract people into geology, or offer training.  For example, as President I am an ex-offico Commissioner of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, which is now a grant-awarding organisation, and I have re-established the Geological Society’s involvement in advertising and assisting with the Commission’s awards. 

“As one of three Patrons of the William Smith Rotunda Geological Museum in Scarborough (one of the World’s oldest geological museums), I have established the Geological Society ‘President’s Lecture’.  I gave the inaugural one last year and my successor will give the next in 2015.

 “I have also actively supported the Geological Society’s attendance at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, held on the first May Bank Holiday every year and which covers much more of geological interest than fossils!  More than 10,000 people attended last year.  This year at my instigation we are re-focussing our display and stall to include information and advice on the career opportunities in geology.

 “I took a personal interest in the Geological Society’s response to various calls for evidence and enquiries from Whitehall and Westminster, including the school science curriculum, and the availability and funding of under- and postgraduate courses.  The Society has a well-developed system for making such responses, which is perhaps under-recognised by our Fellows, and I felt that my personal support was essential for this important activity.

“Last year, I visited the Society’s Hong Kong Regional Group and gave a lecture at their annual dinner.  More  importantly my presence in Hong Kong for almost a week, together with the Society’s Chartership Officer Bill Gaskarth, boosted our encouragement of Hong Kong companies whose training schemes we accredit (or will soon be accrediting), as well as two universities there that run geology degrees (one of which we accredit, the other being interested in our doing so).  My expenses and time were  funded by my employer, Atkins, to whom I am most grateful for making my visit possible.”

I asked David what impact he thought his having an engineering background had had on the Society, if any.

“Others are better placed to judge than I” he joked, “but there are delicate balances to strike.  Engineering geology has for a long time been one of the biggest sectors of employment among Fellows, and I hope that my presidency has helped consolidate this without alienating others. 

“One way in which I have endeavoured to be inclusive has been to demonstrate my strong belief  that geology is a broad and fascinating subject, and that applied geologists/geoscientists (such as engineering geologists) draw on the pure scientific work that is the essence of the contributions of many of our Fellows from academe.  In fact, one of the Geological Society’s roles must be to act as a venue, conduit, agent provocateur, and facilitator for the conversion and application of scientific knowledge to meet the practical needs of society at large.”

 So – obvious question - what did he think was his biggest achievement?  With typical modesty, David replied:

“I have not sought to have a ‘big achievement’.  The Society does not usually operate by ‘big bang’ changes, but by steady and thoughtful evolution.  Nevertheless, I am pleased by the way in which the principal components of the Society’s operations have worked together and developed. 

“By working together, much has been achieved, including: ensuring the Society’s finances and administration are healthy; making important changes to the operation of our library; having a strong programme of scientific and technical meetings and publications (and the drafting of our first Science Policy); maintaining the Society’s links with other allied organisations in the UK, Europe, N America, etc.; and growing our chartership, education and course accreditation programmes.

 So - any regrets?

“No – I prefer to look on what has been achieved; but one disappointment is that we were unable to organise a joint conference with the ICE and IoM3 on urban geology and development.  I had wished to take advantage of the happy conjunction (at the start of my presidency) that the presidents of these three institutions came from the geotechnical/ geo-environmental sector.  But alas, it was not to be.  Happily though, such a conference will now be convened next year, by the Geological Society.

 Does he have any advice for Professor David Manning, as he takes office this month?

“Diary management! And above all, relish the enormous honour and privilege.”

And for the future? 

“There will be a gap in my life and my diary when my presidency ends in June.  At times, work has had to take a back seat to some extent, so one of my tasks will be to return to the day-job within Atkins. 

"The Geological Society’s tradition is that past Presidents retire gracefully to the shadows for a while – a good thing, I think, so that the incoming President does not have to keep looking over his or her shoulder.  But there must be more, and as my time as President draws to a close, I am contemplating what that should be. I will (of course) be available to continue to serve the Geological Society as opportunities arise.”