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World Stage

Our hero endures another long day in the foyers of UNESCO Paris...

Prof Edward Derbyshire (Hon Sec., Foreign & External Affairs) reflects on the future of the multi-functional External Relations Committee…

Geoscientist 17.10 October 2007

Having served ERC under three of its previous Chairs, it is a privilege to take over from Joe Cann as we celebrate our achievements and look ahead with Council’s searching analysis of the Society's strategic aims and objectives.

As the President has pointed out (Geoscientist 17.8 pp15-17), Council's Strategy combines what we already do well with a number of new ventures that may change the scope and shape of the Society. Much of the work involved in meeting this challenge will fall to the Standing Committees, especially the ERC, given its broad range of responsibilities for communications of all sorts. If, as appears likely, ERC’s core functions (regional, national and international), are to be sustained or enhanced, then even greater demands will be placed on its professional staff. Some of these functions (such as developing links with other scientific bodies in the UK and overseas, or encouraging life-long learning by sustained interaction with regional societies) will inevitably have budgetary implications.

I confess to a personal interest in extending links to overseas societies, which I believe is in the Society's best long-term interests. The current situation of the UK National Committee for the International Geoscience Programme (IGCP) is an unusually complex, if not typical case in point. ERC serves as the UK IGCP Committee and is responsible for administering the IGCP Travel Grant and reporting to the Royal Society.

Both the IGCP and its recent outgrowth, the International Year of Planet Earth (IYPE), are joint initiatives of UNESCO and IUGS, so it is fitting that the ERC should also serve as the UK National Committee for the IYPE. Throughout its 36-year history, UK geoscientists have a record second to none as contributors and leaders in IGCP. UK geoscientists also provide leadership within the IYPE. The IGCP interacts with other international organisations including, for example, the geoscience unions’ consortium (IUGG, IUGS and ISPRS), and its direct links with approximately 150 IGCP National Committees around the globe give the Society a potential ‘hot line’ (via the National Committees) to members of national geological societies around the world.

Not all these links are substantial but, nearer home, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the ERC Chair (as Chair of UK IGCP) is also a member of the Chairs’ Working Group of the four UNESCO Intergovernmental Science Programmes (ISPs). (I hope you are all still with me - concentrate!) ISPs, in turn, constitute an integral part of the Physical Sciences Committee of the UK Commission for UNESCO. The Commission therefore expects information and practical advice from ERC in its efforts to enhance the UK’s contribution to the content and quality of UNESCO science.

Three UK ISPs benefit from firm links with UK government departments, but the ERC-IGCP does not. In part this is because although IGCP is international, it is not "intergovernmental"; it remains the odd man out. If UK IGCP is to have a chance of sustaining its record of leadership in this highly successful programme and (equally importantly) help ensure that Earth science remains viable and enjoy long-awaited growth within UNESCO’s Science Sector, then ERC’s membership and functioning on behalf of UK IGCP may have to be reviewed.