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A bright future

As Richard Hughes leaves the Society to take his well-earned retirement, he reflects on a period of great change and immense achievement

1 December 2022

The Eglwyseg escarpment near Llangollen, Wales

Richard’s interest in geology was sparked by the rocky landscapes of North Wales.

“As a child, I wandered along the Eglwyseg escarpment above Llangollen collecting Carboniferous corals and brachiopods, but it wasn’t until I studied geology at university that I realised I’d spent my formative years in two classic areas of British geology (the other being Snowdonia and the north-west coast of Wales around Tremadoc and Harlech).”

Having been told by a careers advisor that he’d never get a job in geology, Richard originally enrolled to study zoology at the University of Wales, Cardiff. Fortunately, Richard was able to switch his undergraduate course to geology, and he then went on to obtain a PhD in Earth science from the University of Cambridge in 1985.

Varied career

Richard enjoyed a varied career spanning more than 20 years at the British Geological Survey (BGS), of which his work in Ecuador was a significant highlight. “I was part of a British-Ecuadorian team that completed the first systematic geological and geochemical mapping of the Cordillera Occidental of the Andes, from Peru in the south to Colombia in the north.”

After spending time on international development projects in various parts of Africa for the BGS, Richard took on the role of Director of Information. It was in this role that he and his teams delivered the BGS’s OpenGeoscience initiative under a ‘freemium’ business model that enables open access to various geoscientific maps and data, with the option of a paid-for upgrade for premium functionality. With his experience in business development and the monetisation of digital data, Richard joined The Coal Authority – a public body that helps manage the UK’s substantial mining legacy – to oversee the release of digital mining datasets that have since stimulated significant activity in the conveyancing sector.

These diverse experiences, as well as time spent as a Geological Society Council member, stood Richard in good stead for the role of Executive Secretary, an opportunity that he says was “too good to ignore”.

Transformative strategy

When Richard became Executive Secretary in 2017, the Society had gone through difficult times. It was in need of modernisation, and membership numbers, which peaked at about 12,400 in 2017, were beginning to dip. Having been a Fellow and Chartered Geologist for around 25 years, Richard had witnessed enormous change both at the Society and within our field, but arguably none so great as the transformations that have taken place over the past few years – for which the 2020 Strategic Options Review was a major catalyst.

“I can’t overstate the importance of this review, which built upon and brought focus to the 2017–2027 strategy. The very generous pro bono support received from a leading international management consultancy was instrumental to the success of the project. Council readily adopted the four strategic priorities arising from the review, and these now form the backbone of our annual business plan. In particular, the adoption of five new science themes – Energy Transition, Geohazards Geoengineering & Georesilience, Climate & Ecology, Planetary Science and Digital Geoscience – complements the excellent work of our Specialist Groups and brings real focus to the Society’s science programme.”

Richard is quick to point out that “strategising is often the easy part”, adding that: “Looking forward, it’s absolutely vital that the Society maintains its focus on delivering the outstanding work of the Strategic Options Review.” While the extremely broad-ranging nature of the role means that Richard hesitates to offer advice to the incoming Chief Executive, Simon Thompson, he does urge viewing the Strategic Options Review recommendations as the platform on which to build future success. “It’s essential our science programme remains current, and important to remain focused and build on those five priority areas.”

I’m delighted that numbers have stabilised, but our membership is getting older: remaining relevant and appealing to early-career students and Earth scientists will not be easy

A shifting landscape

Earth science societies worldwide are grappling with a variety of complex challenges on many fronts. The declining numbers of students studying geoscience and a tumultuous time for the petroleum and extractive industries translates into falling membership numbers, while societies that rely on scholarly publishing as a primary revenue stream have to contend with the rapid transition away from a subscription-based business model towards an open access one. Added to that, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down in-person events and the associated networking opportunities, forcing the transition to remote working. The past few years have certainly not been easy.

Richard cites the increasingly negative public perceptions and attitudes towards geoscience as a critical hurdle that we must tackle head-on. “There’s a widely held view that the Earth sciences are the root cause of many societal challenges, and a lack of understanding (and sometimes unwillingness to listen) that they also offer the potential solutions. Turning around such perceptions is a challenge that the Society cannot overcome alone. It will require a coordinated approach from across our community – industry, academia and government.

“Within our community we’re very aware of how important the Earth sciences are in addressing major global challenges including the energy transition and sourcing of critical minerals to underpin growth of renewables, carbon capture and storage, geothermal energy and radioactive waste management. But we need to be more effective in communicating these messages beyond our community.”

Indeed, the declining numbers of Earth science graduates is reflected in our membership data, with a slight fall in this demographic year-on-year between 2017 and 2021. That said, overall our membership numbers are now fairly stable and compare very well with some other leading Earth science societies. But that’s no reason for complacency. “I’m delighted that numbers have stabilised, but our membership is getting older: remaining relevant and appealing to early-career students and Earth scientists will not be easy.

“In 2023, I expect the Society to announce a new grant round to fund research into critical, energy transition-related minerals, which should raise the Society’s profile in a big way. Additionally, the roll-out of the second phase of our membership model will lay the groundwork for international membership growth.”

Compounding the problem of attracting new members is a lack of diversity in Earth science compared to other science disciplines. “This is a complex issue and there’s no single reason for it, but we must make sure our profession is able to attract and retain the best people from all demographics – this is very much on Council’s radar as a major challenge to be addressed.”

Burlington House


When it comes to the shifting publishing landscape, the Geological Society’s publishing house has proved to be dynamic and responsive, and Richard touches on several notable achievements that include: the launch of new open-access or hybrid journals such as Earth Science, Systems and Society (www.escubed.org) and Geoenergy (www.geolsoc.org.uk/geoenergy); strong progress with signing up UK institutions to transformative read-and-publish agreements; and the migration of the Lyell Collection to a modern publishing platform that provides enhanced accessibility and a more author-centric experience.

And while the Covid-19 pandemic tested the Society’s resilience, bringing with it “a period of crisis management and uncertainty on many fronts”, Richard feels that we learned and emerged stronger. In particular, he emphasises that the pandemic accelerated the Society’s shift toward digital, as we were forced to rapidly transition to remote working – a feat that was not only achieved with almost uninterrupted business continuity, but also with some remarkable successes.

“The ‘digital revolution’ has brought about fundamental changes to the way the Society operates – our publications are now all accessible digitally, we provide access to an increasing amount of online publications and our virtual events including AGMs and public lectures now reach much bigger, more inclusive audiences across the globe.”

Despite the many hurdles, Richard lists a number of the Society’s achievements (in addition to those above) of which he is particularly proud. These include being granted observer status at the 2021 COP26 meeting in Glasgow (a first for the Society); a systematic approach to fundraising, which has made possible flagship events such as the 2021 Spacescapes Exhibition and education initiatives such as the Geoscience Education & Outreach Network; and the wonderful new format of our membership magazine.

Richard is keen to stress his admiration for the Society’s staff and volunteers. “The staff are truly exceptional and deeply committed to the Society, and I will never forget the way they shifted overnight to a home-working regime when the pandemic first struck in March 2020. They should be enormously proud of all they’ve achieved, and I know there’s so much more to come! Likewise, the volunteers: it’s largely down to the time generously given by so many talented volunteers – our trustees, committee members and representatives – that the Society is able to achieve so much.”

The calls with Sir David Attenborough, Brian Cox and other distinguished individuals to enlist their support for the Burlington House campaign stick in my mind

A long-term home

The enduring saga of the Burlington House lease has taken up a vast amount of Richard’s time as he, together with representatives from the other Courtyard societies, have worked on a high-profile public campaign and dealt with government ministers in an attempt to reach an affordable solution that would enable the societies to remain at Burlington House in the long term. “This has been a massive distraction for all of the Courtyard societies and, as I write, we’re no closer an agreement than we were back in 2017 – an affordable long-term solution remains out of reach.”

While time-consuming, some of Richard’s most memorable and unexpected moments have come from the Burlington House lease campaign. “The calls with Sir David Attenborough, Brian Cox and other distinguished individuals to enlist their support for the Burlington House campaign stick in my mind.”

Richard notes that while there exists “a range of opinions within the Fellowship on the matter”, he is reassured that, “whatever the final outcome, the excellent work of the Relocation Options Project in 2021 means we’ve made very substantial progress in better understanding the alternatives to Burlington House and we have a preferred solution should it be necessary to relocate. I’ve no doubt at all that relocation would offer many opportunities.”

A strong platform

The Society has changed immensely in the past few years, but Richard stresses that while there has been a great deal of modernisation, much remains to be done – not least the major (and long-overdue) re-design of our website, which is in the pipeline for 2023. Although it’s not been an entirely smooth journey, Richard believes the Society is now in a stronger position to respond to the challenges that lie ahead.

“As I look back, there are most certainly a few more things I wish I’d been able to achieve, but I feel that there’s a strong platform on which to build further successes. There’s every reason to be optimistic about the future of the Society and our science!”

Richard says he’s frequently reminded of the great respect shown from individuals and organisations around the world towards the Geological Society and he has no intention of abandoning us completely. “We have a strong reputation and brand, and there’s no doubt that the Society remains highly influential within the international geoscience community.

“All in all, it’s been a huge privilege to be part of the Society’s journey and successes over the past few years. As a long-standing FGS and CGeol, I won’t be departing the scene completely just yet, and I look forward to seeing the Society go from strength to strength in future years.”

Richard Hughes

Dr Richard Hughes was Executive Secretary for the Geological Society of London, UK, from 2007 until 2022.

Interview by Amy Whitchurch


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