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Podcast: Geo Conversations with Ruth Allington

Words by Marissa Lo
8 May 2024

Geo Conversations is a podcast series featuring in-depth discussions of topical issues affecting the geosciences.

In this episode of Geo Conversations, Marissa Lo, Assistant Editor, speaks to Ruth Allington, who will be finishing her term as President of the Geological Society of London in June 2024.

Episode Transcript

[00:10] Marissa Lo: Hello and welcome to Geo Conversations, a podcast by Geoscientist magazine. My name is Marissa Lo and today I’m joined by Ruth Allington, who has recently finished her term as President of the Geological Society of London. So, thanks so much for joining me, Ruth. Looking back over the past couple of years, what achievement are you most proud of from your time as President?

[00:32] Ruth Allington: I’m proud of so much, but it’s not proud of what I’ve done, it’s proud of what’s happened. So, the most amazing thing that’s happened is that finally we have negotiated a long, long lease with the government and we will be staying in Burlington House. I signed the heads of terms yesterday on behalf of the Geological Society. We have a 999-year lease. We’ll be paying for it over ten years, and after that we won’t ever pay any rent ever again.

[01:06] Marissa Lo: How has that been negotiating all of that? We’ve heard a few things from the staff side and then I’m sure Fellows will have heard a few things. But how has it been from your side?

[01:16] Ruth Allington: Well, it actually started way, way, way back. I wasn’t even in at the beginning, but I was on Council, I’d say end of, end of 1990s into the 2000s. I was vice president first, and then I was professional secretary. And this was a really live topic then, our security of tenure, and whether or not we should sign up to the current lease. Just a little bit after I finished on Council, I think in 2007, there was an arbitration and the arbitrator found in favour of the government. And so, we had no choice but to sign up to our current lease, which escalated and escalated and escalated the rents. Fellows will certainly have been aware in recent years, and certainly in the last five years that this has become a really hot topic because we’re now at the point in the escalation of the rents, that it’s clearly untenable, this current lease. And so, the courtyard societies together. So that’s ourselves, the Linnaean Society, Royal Society of Astronomers, the Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Royal Society of Chemists have been negotiating for years. It’s been a huge distraction. And finally, the planets have aligned, a lot of hard work, and we’ve got it over the line! This is not big news to the audience for this podcast because they, they will almost certainly already know about it. But at the time we’re recording it, it’s really big news for us. And so, I’m very proud to be the President who put their name on the heads of terms. It’s a wonderful time for it to happen. We’re in the last week of Megalosaurus month, which is another thing that makes me very, very proud. And this year is the 150th anniversary of us moving into Burlington House, so it just seems really fitting.

I mentioned Megalosaurus month. That’s been a particular highlight for me because it brings together all the lots of the wonderful things that have been happening. This last week I’ve been lino printing, inspired by the Megalosaurus. And the week before, I was doing charcoal drawing and I was at the public lecture given by Sir Mike Benton, and there was a reading of the Buckland paper. And that followed a history of geology group fantastic reenactment of the, of the reading of this paper at 20 Bedford Street, which was where the Geological Society was 200 years ago. But the sound of children in the building has been fabulous, and lots and lots of families, couples, individuals just coming in off the street to see the Megalosaurus skeleton in the upper library. I’ve been very, very lucky as President to have taken over at a time when we were coming out, we were nearly out of the pandemic restrictions. And so, I’ve had the, had the joy of getting involved in things actually, actually happening and not happening on screens. Obviously we use, we use Zoom, we use Teams. You know, to be at meetings, to be at lectures, be at art classes has just been really, really joyous.

[05:01] Marissa Lo: During your time, then, as a Fellow, how do you think the Society has changed?

[05:07] Ruth Allington: That’s a very good question. So, when I look back, I joined the Society in 1981 or 82, so long time ago, but I graduated from my Master’s in 1981, and I was certainly a Fellow in the first year of my employment. And right at the very start, my boss said, okay, next week you’re going to – this was September 1981 – you’re going to the engineering group annual conference. And so, I was pretty nervous about that because I was very young, and I didn’t know what it would be like. I didn’t know what to wear. I didn’t know what would happen. So, I got into my Citroen Dyane, and drove up to Birmingham on a Sunday night. And I was just made welcome. I was made ever so welcome by the engineering group, by the community. And I think that that hasn’t changed, that people are welcomed in by the groups that they identify with, the specialist groups or the regional groups, the Council and so on. But it does happen in very, very different ways. All of that interaction was in person in the past, email didn’t exist, well, it certainly didn’t exist for me then, so the pace was a little bit different. That welcome into the community was very, very important to me and it was the beginning of growing a wonderful network. So that’s a constant thread. And I just got stuck in. I became secretary of the engineering group and then I was chair, and then I was on Council, I was professional secretary, I was vice president for regional groups. And then I got quite involved as the Geological Society delegate to the European Federation of Geologists, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And I was President of the European Federation of Geologists for a time. And now I’ve been back on Council as President. I mean, that would have been astonishing to the 22-year-old me when I first joined the Society. When I put my nomination in, I thought, really, should I really do this? It just seemed extraordinary that I would be the 111th President of the Geological Society. When I read the names of the first Presidents and the two women who’ve gone before me, being the third woman is extraordinary, when I think of Lynne Frostick and before her Janet Watson. Of course, it’s ridiculous that there have only been three, 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. For me, as a volunteer over all these years, it’s working with the staff that brings such a lot of joy, actually. Just to go back to your first question about being proud, I’m very proud of the way that’s working at the moment. It’s working, I’d say, particularly well, at the moment. That’s not down to me, I’m just lucky enough to be in the seat when this is working well.

[08:44] Marissa Lo: What do you think are the most important challenges the Society currently faces?

[08:49] Ruth Allington: I think it’s to do with making an impact in modern society where geology, geoscience is so very, very important to making the changes and transitions that we need to make as a human race and to sustain all life on the planet. There are so many challenges there, people challenges, navigating the difficult narratives and stories around these issues about climate change, about energy transition, about mining critical minerals and so on. There’s a lot of finger pointing about things that are, and cancelling of things that are perceived to be bad. So mining is bad, and hydrocarbons are bad and wrong. Somehow, whilst calling to account bad practice, unethical practice, we need to be an agent of change, I think, and also an agent for support. There’s a vast geoscience workforce and it needs to get bigger and it needs to deploy itself in changing ways. And all of that needs support. It needs support not only in the science, the development of the science, and supporting publication and so on, but training, support to university departments and support to people’s careers and professional development.

I frequently felt, and I’ve reflected a lot during my time as President, actually, that the young people who are rightly so angry about what my generation has and generations before me have brought about in the world, environmental damage and so on, and the inexorable march of human-caused climate change. If we can influence young people and see that, instead of painting us as being bad and wrong for being involved in these things, they are the agents for change. A more potent change agent, I think, would be to actually get stuck in by being educated in geoscience or one of the many, many other disciplines that are relevant to meeting climate and decarbonisation challenges, particularly. So as to be the workforce of the future, to be the thinkers of the future, to be the policymakers of the future. And there’s another big challenge, is the communication of science in accessible ways to policymakers, not only telling them stuff, but also having dialogues with them and helping them really to understand. I think the biggest challenge 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. During the pandemic, I was giving talks, sometimes to seminars and conferences, and you’re just talking to your own headshot. Or you’re in a training course as a delegate and your microphone’s off and your video’s off. But what’s been wonderful about working in a hybrid way, which I think all of us do now, is that once you’ve met somebody with some really good quality connection, all of this amazing electronic connection is really, really helpful to sustain whatever you’re doing together.

[12:54] Marissa Lo: Well, the final question is, looking ahead, are there any upcoming developments in geoscience that you’re particularly excited about?

[13:04] Ruth Allington: Well, I’m really excited about the emergence of interests in the arts and geoscience and the way they interact. And there’s this conference, two-day conference coming up in September, which is exploring all of those things, bringing creative people together with geoscientists and creative geoscientists. The Megalosaurus month activities that I’ve been involved in, that I mentioned to you, the charcoal drawing and the lino cutting are all part of that. You know, we’re across the courtyard from the Royal Academy, and our fellow courtyard societies all have the most amazing histories and artifacts, and you have this extraordinary sort of ecosystem of arts and sciences, you know, the history of civilisation. All of that helps to connect our science to society, and also brings us all so much joy. And so that’s what I’m particularly excited about. You know, I can’t get involved in everything, obviously, but to hear about the extraordinary research people do, and that’s why I’ve always loved President’s Day. It was completely extraordinary and very nerve wracking to be the President on President’s Day. But what I’ve always loved about it is hearing from the people receiving medals and awards. Some of them, of course, give talks or little acceptance speeches, hearing about their extraordinary, wonderful achievements. And so, you’re hearing about all this with the people in the room and their family and their friends and their colleagues. It’s just such a joy and so impressive, and especially hearing about what the younger people are, younger people are doing. And so, we’re looping straight back to what makes me proud.

[15:02] Marissa Lo: Thank you so much for all of this insightful discussion. And thank you also for your dedication as President.

[15:10] Ruth Allington: Thank you.

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