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Reverse the decline

1 March 2021

Geologists are forensic detectives, gathering data on location

Dear Editors,

Geology’s popularity is in decline for many reasons. A big one is that, as a community, we have allowed it to become widely regarded as just the study of some dusty old rocks. Geologists know it is far more than that – it is Earth Science. Another reason is the name change to Earth sciences or geoscience – this only creates confusion and dilutes our message.

The Geological Society urgently needs to be more proactive in encouraging extra mural courses and spreading the word. Clearly, we must embrace diversity and inclusivity, while eliminating racism, but we cannot give in to those clamouring to remove traditional fieldwork requirements. It should be crystal clear why it is ridiculous to think the personal experience gained through fieldwork is not absolutely essential, and it worries me that anyone could think they can become a real ‘geologist’ without it.

Virtual field trips are great for inclusivity, but I am concerned that these will largely become point-and-see exercises that do not instil sound recording techniques or stimulate the kind of mind that seeks out answers. Safety and inclusivity in the field are vital, but difficult issues.

Thankfully many classic localities already have suitable access and it wouldn’t take much work to improve many more field locations. Some sites even offer for hire off-road mobility scooters. Would the Geological Society be interested in helping to set up a database of such places and help raise funding to improve matters?

True geologists are like forensic detectives. They must think across disciplines to understand the complexities of Earth’s natural processes and its many human-made problems. The combination of a less outdoorsy generation and geology’s toxic association with destructive and polluting extractive industries are major barriers to be overcome if geology’s popularity is to be improved.

With so little coverage of accurate geology in the media, and little or no specific mention of the term geology in schools, is it any wonder that many are unaware of the tremendous opportunity geology offers for employment, intellectual challenge and personal fulfilment, as well as its key role in locating essential resources and helping Earth’s environment?

A hard task lies ahead, but we must hurry to fully convince the public that first-class geologists are, and always will be, absolutely vital.

Richard Arthur


George Jameson, Diversity and Inclusion Project Lead, Geological Society of London, writes in response:

The Society is acutely aware of the decline in the popularity of geology over recent years. This is most noticeable in the drop in student numbers applying for and studying geology at undergraduate level, something we are genuinely concerned by.

Ideally, we want every person to be familiar with geology as an area of study and aware of the applications of geology to our everyday lives. However, this ideal is nuanced. There are old-fashioned perceptions of what geology is and what geologists do, as you rightly point out, especially around geology’s association with the extractive industries.

This complex problem is not one the Society can fix alone. We are therefore partnering with a number of other organisations and stakeholders to widen the appeal of geology. Two notable organisations are:

  • University Geoscience UK, the subject association of geoscience departments based within British universities. We co-organised the June 2020 student enrolment summit, which led to the development of a strategy and a plan of action is currently being pursued to increase interest.
  • Diversity in Geoscience UK, a recently established charity looking at ways to improve diversity and inclusion for all within the community. They are currently assessing potential projects and fundraising opportunities, and we can work together with them to improve access to field locations throughout the country.

Our goals may not be realised overnight, but they will go some way to dusting off the perception of geology as just the study of old rocks. Given the gravity of the situation, it is essential for the community to address this task together and we welcome additional support.

To anyone who wishes to continue this conversation, please get in touch by emailing diversity@geolsoc.org.uk

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