Product has been added to the basket

Geoscience and the future - time for a reboot?

Is our science in crisis? Florence Bullough reports from a recent virtual meeting held to address the future of the geosciences

Bullough, F., Geoscience and the future - time for a reboot? Geoscientist 30 (8), 26-27, 2020 10.1144/geosci2020-106, Download the pdf here

In early June, more than 1000 geoscientists came together for a virtual meeting to discuss and debate new directions for geoscience in the context of the energy transition and a post-Covid world. Streamed live on YouTube, ‘The Future of Geoscience’ was organised by The Geological Society and Terrafirma founder Tom Backhouse, and addressed growing concerns over a drop in student enrolment and the need to engage more school-age children in geoscience.

These are not wholly new concerns, but the rapidly shifting backdrop of the post-Covid recovery and the agility needed to meet both the Paris Agreement and the UK’s net-zero goals made this an important moment to bring the community together.  

Setting the scene  

The Geological Society’s former President, Nick Rogers, set the scene, outlining the crisis in student numbers enrolling for geoscience courses. He also raised the challenges that the subject faces in terms of a critical lack of diversity amongst both students and professionals. In the context of the recent Black Lives Matter protests around the world, the urgency of addressing this disparity has only become more clear. It was widely agreed that the geoscience community needs to look very hard, at all levels, at ways the subject can be more welcoming to a broader sector of society.  

Issues of perception 

There were a number of discussions around the perception of geoscience and how it marries to the diversity of careers that will be needed to meet the world’s biggest challenges. Our science is suffering a major image problem and as a community, we haven’t done enough to promote what we offer. Geoscientists have a major role to play in the delivery of net-zero, in the provision of mined materials for the energy transition and in sustainable development. Nevertheless, the image of the subject for many remains one of helping to create the problem, through the development of oil, gas and mineral resources. As GSL Council member Helen Smyth said, we need to reframe geoscientists as ‘key workers for the planet’ and highlight the important role we need to play both now and in the future.  

So why the disconnect? How can we change the perception? Many people raised the lack of exposure to geology that children get in school; whilst children might first encounter geology through fossils and dinosaurs, the next time they are likely to hear about it is either through catastrophic hazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes or through the oil and gas industries.  

The first panel agreed that the perception issue was more than just a marketing problem, and that as a community we need a meaningful and genuine reform of the sector. Joel Gill added that going forward, geoscientists will need a wider variety of skills, and will need training in stakeholder mapping tools, communication and public affairs if we are to help meet many of the challenges set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We also need to do more to develop our public engagement strategies, beyond peer-to-peer engagement.  

meeting reportLeft: Iain Stewart speaking at the Future of Geoscience summit

Data sharing

There was a useful discussion around the perception of geoscience in business. In particular, how can geoscience information, which is critical for many industries, be usefully transformed for users outside the field. As one panel member noted, ‘being able to predict the subsurface is an amazing thing, but sharing data is hard’. Data and knowledge is packaged into information and decision making and so effort is required to bridge the communication gap.  

Reframing geoscience towards future challenges will require an interdisciplinary approach and a commitment to working beyond silos. This may in the future include more blended, solution focussed degree programmes. Geoscience is already more interdisciplinary than some sciences but it needs modernising. Geoscience data is at the heart of many issues such as climate change, but we need to get better at translating the skills and information.  

Addressing diversity 

How can this be achieved? The group agreed that diversity in role models is important for generating interest from a wider cross-section of society: people cannot be what they cannot see. Drawing from a wider group will also lead to better solutions and innovation through diversity of thought. Significant improvements to diversity and inclusion will require leadership from major geoscience organisations, many of whom are already engaged in diversity initiatives, as well as individual action across the community. But it will need to happen at all levels. As things stand, we are not succeeding in engaging diverse communities and we are not hearing from diverse communities enough.  

What’s behind the fall in student enrolment?  

So why are enrolment numbers dropping, just at a time when geoscientists are becoming more critical? Some of this is attributed to the decline of the Geology A Level and the tightening up of the school curriculum, which leaves little room for additional subject areas. But the geoscience community must bear some of the blame and responsibility for improving the situation.  

One of the panel members, a geography teacher, noted that there is a lack of awareness of geoscience at school level but that also that the curriculum is currently very full. Even where there is interest, teachers’ confidence in teaching geological aspects of the syllabus is a major issue. Fieldwork can also be seen as a major barrier, both for inclusivity and achieving diversity but also in the time it takes out of a school day.  

Should we be thinking more radically about how to include geoscience in everything - from science and geography (particularly linked to cities) to poetry and creative writing in English? We will need to think broadly and innovatively about how to introduce geoscience into children’s education, if we are to increase awareness from an early age. 

Does geoscience need a reboot? 

The final session opened with a presentation from Iain Stewart which kicked off a fascinating debate about how the downturn could be addressed. Iain argued that geology needs a reboot and that we need to focus on what we alone can deliver compared to other disciplines. Geoscientists think in a unique and important way - it’s not only a historical science but also a derivative and interpretive one. As Iain put it, ‘we steal from everywhere and meld it together!’ 
Subsurface science is only going to get more important in the context of a growing population, supporting sustainable development and preventing dangerous climate change. We are now approaching ‘the age of insertion’ - putting things back under the surface, such as CO2 through carbon capture and storage and radioactive waste, for the benefit of society. It is this type of insight and knowledge that sets geoscientists apart from geographers and surface scientists.  

Perhaps a new approach would be to adopt a position of ‘Earth stewardship’, branding geologists as ‘key workers for the planet’. As geologists, we understand the planet in its totality and we also understand its boundaries. Finding a balance between using the planet’s resources and environmental protection is vital, with an important role for geoethics, and as geologists we are uniquely positioned to do this. Addressing diversity in our ranks and appealing to a broader section of society will be critical to developing this holistic approach. 


Florence Bullough is Head of Policy and Engagement at the Geological Society