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Pride and pressure

"I've given quite a lot of time and energy, and it's repaid me in spades because I've so enjoyed it," says Ruth Allington as she reflects on her time as President

14 June 2024
Megalosaurus Month Ruth Allington interview

“Megalosaurus Month has been a particular highlight,” says Ruth

What achievements are you most proud of from your time as President?

I’m proud of so much – not of what I’ve done, but of what’s happened. The most amazing thing is that we’ve finally negotiated a long lease with the government to stay at Burlington House. This issue started probably back in the 1990s. Our security of tenure was a really live topic back then. An arbitration found in favour of government so we had no choice but to sign up to our current lease, which escalated the rents to a point where it was untenable. So, the Courtyard Societies – ourselves, the Linnean Society of London, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Royal Society of Chemistry – have been negotiating together for years.  I’m very proud to be the President who put their name on the Heads of Terms on behalf of the Geological Society, alongside the Presidents and CEOs of the other Courtyard Societies. And it’s a wonderful time for it to happen – this year is the 50th anniversary of us moving into Burlington House, so it just seems really fitting. It’s been a huge distraction, and finally the planets have aligned.

I’m so proud of all the staff. Working with the staff brings me such a lot of joy – seeing them thrive, supporting them, whilst trying not to be too demanding when our enthusiasm runs away with us. I’m very proud of the way that’s working – with excellent leadership from the senior team and lots of commitment, expertise, and enthusiasm. But that’s not down to me; I’m just lucky enough to be in the seat when this is working well.

Working with the staff brings me such a lot of joy – seeing them thrive, supporting them, whilst trying not to be too demanding when our enthusiasm runs away with us

I’ve been very lucky as President to have taken over at a time when we were coming out of pandemic restrictions. I’ve had the joy of getting involved in live events. Megalosaurus Month, in February, has been a particular highlight because it brought together lots of wonderful things – I’ve been lino printing and charcoal drawing (inspired by the Megalosaurus), and attended the public lecture given by Professor Mike Benton, and the reading of the Buckland paper during a fantastic reenactment organised by the History of Geology Group at 20 Bedford Street, where the Geological Society was located 200 years ago. Burlington House has been filled with the sound of children, families, couples, and individuals who came in off the street to see the Megalosaurus skeleton in the upper library or get involved in organised activities.

Tell us about your time as a Fellow and how the Society has changed

I joined the Society around 1981. In my first month of employment, my boss sent me to the Engineering Group Annual Conference. I was nervous because I was very young and had no idea what to expect, but I was made ever so welcome by the Engineering Group and the community. And that hasn’t changed. People are welcomed in by the groups that they identify with – the Specialist Groups or the Regional Groups, the Council and so on. That interaction was wholly in-person in the past, so the pace was a little different.

That welcome into the community was very important to me. It was the beginning of growing a wonderful network of contacts, colleagues and friendships that I absolutely cherish. So that’s a constant thread. And I just got stuck in. I became Secretary of the Engineering Group and then Chair. I was on Council, I was Professional Secretary, Vice President for Regional Groups, and then I was the Society delegate to the European Federation of Geologists, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Now I’ve been back on Council as President. That would have been astonishing to 22-year-old me when I first joined the Society. When I read the names of the first 110 Presidents and the two women who’ve gone before me – Janet Watson and Lynne Frostick – being the third woman seems extraordinary. Of course, it’s ridiculous that there have only been three women, but it is fantastic to be in that number and I hope it will become regular and normal for women to be President of the Geological Society.

What are the most important challenges the Society faces?

I think it’s to do with making an impact in modern society, where geoscience is so important to making the changes we need to make as a human race to adapt and live sustainably on the planet.

There’s the challenge of navigating the difficult narratives around climate change, the energy transition, mining critical minerals and so on. There seems to be a very binary debate. A lot of shouting, but no dialogue. There’s a lot of finger-pointing but somehow, whilst calling to account bad, unethical practice, we also need to be an agent of change and support. The vast geoscience workforce needs to get bigger and deploy itself in changing ways – and all of that needs support, not only for the science, but for training, university departments, people’s careers, and professional development. The young people who are rightly so angry about what generations before have brought about in the world – environmental damage, the inexorable march of human-caused climate change – are the agents for change. But if placard waving and demonstrations are the only tools in your toolbox as a change agent, you don’t get very far. A more potent change, I think, would be to get stuck in by being educated in geoscience or the many other disciplines that are essential to meeting climate and decarbonisation challenges, particularly critical minerals challenges, so as to be the workforces of the future, the thinkers of the future, the policymakers of the future grounded in excellent science.

Making the Geological Society thrive depends not only on its staff but most particularly on the Fellows who volunteer and get involved. Whilst our volunteers and the things they achieve are extraordinary, we have to work harder than we might think, given the apparent ease of communications. I think one of the biggest challenges of our time is being so connected electronically and so disconnected emotionally. The effort we need to put in to having good quality connection is so important and so enormous. What’s wonderful about working in a hybrid way is that once you’ve met somebody and made a good-quality connection, this amazing electronic connection is helpful to sustain your collaboration or friendship. But creating those effective personal and professional connections and relationships is where we need to work hard. What’s changed is the pressure practitioners are under. Now, emails being on phones and so on puts people under pressure to be available 24/7. In the past, if you went to a conference, you’d be having conversations and participating in sessions without the distraction of receiving messages or making telephone calls.

What geoscience developments are you excited about?

I’m really excited about the emergence of interest in the arts and geoscience, and the way they interact. The Society’s two-day conference, Earth’s Canvas, in September will explore this and bring creative people together with geoscientists and creative geoscientists. Across the courtyard, the Royal Academy of Arts and our fellow Courtyard Societies have the most amazing histories and artifacts – it’s an extraordinary ecosystem of arts and scientists, sciences, civilization, the history of civilization. All of that helps to connect our science to society and brings so much pleasure.

I’m always excited to hear about the extraordinary research people do. That’s why I’ve always loved President’s Day – hearing from the people receiving medals and awards, and the wonderful citations about their work. And celebrating all this with the people in the room, accompanied by their family, friends, and colleagues. It’s so impressive, especially hearing about what the younger people are doing. Just extraordinary. And so we’re looping straight back to what makes me proud.

Ruth Allington is an Engineering Geologist and qualified mediator and facilitator, and the outgoing President of the Geological Society.

This is an edited excerpt from the podcast episode Geo Conversations: Ruth Allington. Listen to the full interview at Geoscientist.Online 

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