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Aspirations for Society and geoscience

Simon Thompson, who joined the Geological Society as Chief Executive in November 2022, provides insight into his career path and aspirations for the future of the Society

1 March 2023

“We are at a moment in history when geoscience is again at the centre of profound challenges and opportunities. This brings immense responsibility for the Geological Society and its members and makes it an exciting time to be involved.”

Not many people start their careers planning to become Chief Executive of a learned and professional society, and I am not an exception. I fell into this sort of work by accident, and then fell in love with it. 

A winding path

My grandparents had a market stall at a west coast seaside town called Fleetwood, so I spent time near the beach and my early ambitions were to become either an ice cream man or the guy who did the Punch and Judy show. I enjoyed collecting shells and fossils, and liked cracking stones with a hammer to see what was inside. But I never thought to become a geologist. Instead, I decided to indulge my love of arguing, and studied law. I found this fascinating in parts, monotonous in others, and by the end of it was certain I didn’t want to be a lawyer.

So, with all due respect to my fellow publishers, I did what many directionless people do and got into publishing. I discovered this to be a wonderfully interesting and diverse career, particularly as I was involved in the early transition from print to digital. I moved on to online information, running a political news service and a financial data business. Then I got together with some colleagues and we ran our own market research agency for five years, where I did everything from making cold sales calls to burning the midnight oil writing market reports.

From there I worked for a couple of charities, until I found what I think is my natural home: the non-profit membership sector. I love the varied nature of the work, the combination of forward planning and problem solving, working with a wide variety of people, and contributing to something worthwhile. I was CEO of a medical society for five years, which was a very happy time in my life despite taking place partly during the pandemic, with members under intense pressure. 

Responsibility and opportunity

When Richard Hughes decided to retire from his role at the Geological Society and this vacancy opened, I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation. The Geological Society of London is one of the best known and most distinguished societies in the world. Geoscience has an epic quality that I find very attractive. It has been crucial to our understanding of our planet and the universe, has driven social and industrial change, and has sparked innovation. We are at a moment in history when geoscience is again at the centre of profound challenges and opportunities. This brings immense responsibility for the Geological Society and its members and makes it an exciting time to be involved.

From a more personal point of view, who you work with is maybe more important than anything else. The recruitment process involved my meeting a number of Council and staff members. Geological Society people are sharp thinkers, pragmatic, compassionate, and highly committed to what they do. I honestly can’t think of anyone I’ve met so far who I wouldn’t include in this description. 

A shared vision

The Geological Society has a good strategy, devised prior to my arrival, that I’d like to help get off the runway and into the air. I will work with our President, Ruth Allington, and with Council, our thriving network of committees, groups, volunteers, Fellows and the highly professional staff team, to help articulate and bring about our shared vision.

A membership organisation should aspire to be something its members would not contemplate living without. This includes a functional element: the provision of must-have information and services, together with a sense of community and shared values, of feeling included and part of something relevant and important.  

With nearly 12,000 members across a range of disciplines and professions, this is a complex task. Being able to communicate effectively is key. In November, Council signed off on a major improvement to our technical infrastructure so that we can communicate in a more user-friendly and personalised way, and provide information that is more relevant to peoples’ individual needs and interests. 

Making the Society and its services easily accessible to everyone, irrespective of location or circumstances, will be a running theme. Among other things, the online content available to members will grow, including from our library, conferences, and the burgeoning online training programme. We will also review the Chartership application and award process to make it more user friendly, and look to grow Chartership in under-represented disciplines. Supporting colleagues in low-income countries is high on the agenda, and we are exploring how to make membership and our services accessible and affordable in places where they are currently out of reach.

Journal publishing is undergoing a transformation as we push ahead with our Open Access offers to make science more freely available to all, whilst maintaining routes to publication for those without access to funding. We will see a period of change as the Publishing House continues to innovate. November saw the launch of the first in the new Geoscience in Practice book series, and a new journal, Geoenergy, launched in early 2023.

Measurable change

Over the past decade, there has been a sharp drop in applications to geoscience degree courses and in the study of geology in secondary schools. We need to reverse that. The world will continue to need properly qualified geoscientists to meet, among other things, its growing need for infrastructure, homes, and sustainable energy. We will be doing more to support secondary school teachers and, in collaboration with other organisations and University Geoscience UK, the Society will play a more dynamic role in reducing barriers and inspiring interest in geoscience among young people. As an organisation, we will also examine ourselves and our output to ensure that we are relevant, inclusive, and appealing to young people and early career professionals.

Something felt keenly within the Society is the need to make geoscience as a field and the Geological Society as an institution more welcoming, diverse and inclusive. This involves removing barriers to opportunity, better reflecting the world in which we operate, and benefitting from the range of perspectives that diversity can bring. We have made a start in understanding some of the barriers and measuring demographics so that we can begin to chart progress. Among other things, our figures show that women, people from a range of ethnicities, and people with disabilities are underrepresented within the Fellowship. The next step will be creative thinking and a plan of action to deliver measurable change.

Goodwill, talent, and ambition

The nature of a learned and professional society is that it does an awful lot of different things. We provide library and archive services, safeguard historical artefacts, administer and award Chartership, accredit degree courses, admit and support Fellows, award medals, grants and bursaries, host and run conferences, provide CPD training, publish journals and books as well as this much cherished magazine, issue policy briefings, support teachers, influence policy makers, and engage with the public.

All of this is underpinned by a small staff team and dedicated volunteers giving their own time and expertise for the public good and to support colleagues.

We won’t be able to do everything at once, and will need to follow a plan of action and make trade-offs. But there is immense goodwill, talent, and ambition within the Geological Society and our community. I have no doubt that the next few years will be some of the best yet. 

Simon Thompson

Simon Thompson is Chief Executive of the Geological Society of London, UK.

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