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Royal Society: 'The Fruits of Curiosity'

Response from the Geological Society

Submitted 14 September 2009

The Geological Society welcomes the Royal Society’s major inquiry into the roles science can pay in meeting long term national economic, social and environmental challenges, looking beyond the current 10-year Investment Framework in considering how science, research and innovation should be funded and governed. We are pleased to offer a brief response to some of the issues raised, and would welcome the opportunity to discuss some of these issues further as the project progresses.

We support the Royal Society’s wish to move beyond simple distinctions between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research. This is hardly a novel idea (see Ben Martin’s work on ‘strategic’ research, dating back to the 1980s, for instance), but lazy assumptions about the nature and characteristics of ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ work persist. ‘Basic’ and ‘curiosity-driven’ are similarly contestable terms. However, it is of course necessary to use terminology of some kind when discussing the variety of types of research – even if care must be taken that these categories are not reified.

The late 18th and early 19th century roots of geology, and its subsequent history, amply demonstrate the impossibility of separating basic and applied science, and the complex non-linear interplay between the development of theory and the drive to address practical and economic issues. William Smith, known as the ‘Father of English Geology’, was a surveyor, whose practical work in mines, quarries and canals was also the foundation for the first nationwide geological map – a conception which did much to define the modern discipline of geology. The exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels and other mineral resources, in particular, have continued to defy simple notions of pure and applied research, and there is a long and rich tradition of ‘knowledge transfer’ between academia and industry (though not always characterised as such), whether through collaboration, communication or migration of personnel.

Earth sciences, including Earth System sciences, are distinctive in being characterised by a high degree of idiographic research (that is, research which is to some extend restricted in time and space – focusing on a geological site or a period in Earth history, for example) in addition to nomothetic research (the pursuit of general laws), in comparison to most natural sciences. This distinction should not be confused with the ‘basic’/’applied’ dimension. Much fundamental or curiosity-driven research in Earth science is highly idiographic – studies of past extinction events or of the formation of particular planetary features, for instance.

The long-term direction of policy for science

1. What role should curiosity-driven research play in the UK science base in the next 15-25 years?

From recent discussions of research governance and funding on the Geological Society’s Council and elsewhere, there is evidently consensus that a range of types of research, from curiosity-driven to highly applied work to address immediate problems, is essential to the long term health of Earth science disciplines and communities, and hence to society at large. However, a wide variety of views have been expressed as to what the appropriate balance in public funding should be between these categories of research, and the roles which should be played by central government, research councils, universities and others in their governance.

We would therefore not seek to take a particular view, as a Society, as to what the ‘right balance’ will be over the coming years. Especially in light of the heterogeneity of views on this matter, it is essential that that scientists from all sorts of institutional and disciplinary background are actively engaged in genuine and ongoing dialogue with government and funding bodies to determine priorities, and that their confidence in decision making and governance structures is nurtured. Welcome though the Royal Society’s inquiry to address this issue is, it cannot hope to find ‘the right answer’ to this question and carry scientific communities with it – still less one which will continue to meet these demands in the long term. It should instead be regarded as a potentially important contribution to a continuous process.

4. How should science be governed to maximise benefits to society while acknowledging public questions, uncertainties and concerns?

This is a very broad question, only limited aspects of which are addressed here.

An important factor in ensuring benefits to society from scientific research are maximised is the establishment of fleet-of-foot funding mechanisms which can respond to redirect resources rapidly to emerging areas of concern and disciplines of science. To address the twin challenges of democratic and scientific legitimacy, it is essential that these mechanisms are open and transparent to the public, accountable to government, and actively engage scientific communities. Existing infrastructures may not meet emerging needs. For example, the Geological Society has encouraged the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), in its forthcoming report on R&D needs, to recommend that a mechanism is needed for strategic co-ordination of research funding across the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the research councils and other bodies – the draft report recognises that this is necessary to ensure that research needs for this critical national problem are met.

Learned societies have a potentially significant role to play in engaging public audiences, scientific communities, and institutions with governance responsibilities (both governance of the political economy of science, and governance of scientific and environmental risk). The concerns of all these groups should shape the agenda for such engagement. Bodies such as the Royal Society and the Geological Society are likely to be regarded as more independent and trustworthy by public groups, as well as by scientific communities, than industrial, governmental or even academic institutions. They are therefore well placed to address public questions, uncertainties and concerns – not simply as irritants to overcome, but as a fundamental driver of their public engagement work – and to help equip the ‘citizen scientist’ to take part in deliberations about the major economic, social and environmental challenges which the UK and the planet will face.

Moreover, unlike the Royal Society, the Geological Society (in common with other disciplinary institutions such as the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics) functions not only as an international learned society, but also as the national professional body for geoscientists (and as a leading player in the international development of professional structures and standards). This dual role is of great value, not only in bringing those from academic, industrial and other backgrounds together in a shared forum, but in contributing directly to the scientific excellence and economic value of the work undertaken by our members. At many of the Geological Society’s meetings, it would be impossible for an external observer to discern whether particular contributors work in universities, industry or elsewhere, and for us, such cross-fertilisation – through meetings, publications and wider networking functions – is normal practice. (It is not for us to comment on how widespread this modus operandi might be in other institutions.) We have made no attempt in the past to quantify the contribution the Society makes to the economy through enabling this interaction. But we are confident that our role in promoting understanding of the geology of offshore North-West Europe over the last 40 years, and its application in hydrocarbons exploration and production, for example, has had a tangible value over that time of tens of millions of dollars, and an intangible scientific and public value beyond reckoning. The Geological Society would be very interested in any work the Royal Society might undertake to identify the financial value of such interactions, and stands ready to assist.

Building and sustaining research careers

9. How can we make research careers – within academia or industry – a more attractive option for young people, both within the UK system and from abroad?

Again, this is a very broad questions, which is only partially addressed here.

An important element in achieving this goal is to build research communities which those in the early stages of their careers see as attractive and sustainable. Flexible governance and funding structures which allow resources to be directed to emerging areas of societal and scientific interest and concern are essential to the formation of real research communities – for example, returning to the example of radioactive waste management, to revivify the dwindling community of UK Earth scientists with experience of the former regime, drawing in the new generation of researchers and practitioners who will meet the demands of the new programme. But young scientists are unlikely to commit themselves to a career in such a research community unless they believe that it is likely to be sustained over a reasonable period of time – so it is also important that funders clearly signal their priorities, behave strategically, and do not lightly switch funding streams on and off.

Supporting emerging communities is another area where learned societies may play an important role. They must be prepared to work together in new areas which may span traditional disciplinary boundaries.

11. Does the standard career-track model need to be re-evaluated? Should we take more account of the movement of skilled individuals between academia, industry and business?

It is not clear what is meant by ‘the standard career-track’. In the Earth sciences, as noted above, the blurring of these boundaries is not seen as particularly novel, especially in some disciplines – whether through movement of personnel between sectors, long-term engagement of academic researchers with economic and industrial problems, or other means. Government is also an important employer of scientists – for example, through the British Geological Survey (BGS), whose parent organisation is a research council (NERC), and which bridges functions of research, consultancy and maintenance of national capability and infrastructure. Some geologists have spent their careers working for BGS – others move between it, other research and survey institutes, academia and industry.

It is worth noting that a significant number of those who have become Earth scientists did not set out with that intention. It is a highly interdisciplinary field, and it is not unusual for practitioners to study physics, chemistry or engineering at undergraduate or postgraduate level, or even to start academic careers in these disciplines, before their research interests draw them into the Earth science community.

The ecology of research funding

See comments against previous questions.

Nic Bilham, Head of Strategy and External Relations
The Geological Society of London, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BG