19 May 2009

To explore or to research? That is not the question.

Posted by Dave Petley

Some readers will be aware that there has been a rumpus during the last few months at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS-IBG) over its policy not to organise and run its own expeditions. A small but influential group (the Beagle Campaign) petitioned for, and got, a Special General Meeting of the Fellows of the Society, culminating in a vote on the issue, on Monday. The resolution, which was opposed unanimously by members of the Council, was defeated (but the vote was quite close on a large turn-out), meaning that the current policy is retained, although this policy was always scheduled to be reviewed over the next year.

You may wonder why I am posting on this issue on a landslide blog? Well, I am an Honorary Secretary of the RGS-IBG, and thus am a member of the Council. In the months leading up to the vote I have been careful not to comment in any public forum on the issue – I felt that in the interests of fairness it was best to remain silent (whilst encouraging all Fellows, regardless of their views of the resolution, to vote) – but now that the vote is over I will explain why I was opposed to the resolution. I write only from absolutely personal perspective – I was in Hong Kong on the day of the vote and have been here since. I have not discussed the vote with any other Council members, and I most certainly do not write on behalf of the Society.

First and foremost, the RGS-IBG has a long and proud tradition of fieldwork. I am a great advocate of field research – my early career was to a large degree built upon it – and I strongly believe that there is a great deal to learn from fieldwork that cannot be learnt from lab studies or from models. The key question therefore is not whether field research should be undertaken (every member of the Council is resolute about the importance of field research), but how should it be organised and funded. I guess in a sense this is where the Beagle Campaign followers and I disagree. They argue, passionately and impressively, that it is best undertaken through large, reasonably long-term expeditions. I argue that it is best undertaken through larger numbers of smaller scale, focused studies. Let me explain why.

In my view there is no doubt at all that the world is facing some pretty serious challenges. Climate change is the most widely discussed, but population growth, urbanisation, deforestation, biodiversity collapse, energy security, inequality and oceanic environmental degradation for example are serious challenges too in my view (some may be more serious than climate change actually). To help us to deal with these issues we need the best research undertaken by the best researchers in the optimum locations. The clock is ticking (loudly), we cannot be complacent. Geographers undoubtedly have a substantial part to play – which other discipline covers all of the above issues? Therefore, the RGS-IBG, as one of the premier Geography organisations, must take a lead. I think that the society is so doing, and am proud of my (very small) role in this.

Unfortunately, the amount of resource that the RGS-IBG has at its disposal is comparatively small. A key question therefore is what is the best way for the Society to use that resource to achieve the necessary aims? My view is that it is to direct comparatively small amounts of money at very high quality research that addresses fundamental issues (and by fundamental I mean key issues conceptually or in terms of influence). This occurs at almost every level – substantial shares go to undergraduate groups, to postgraduates, to early career researchers and to established researchers. The funds are generally used to “leverage” (dreadful word) other funds to great effect. The funding is thus both efficient and effective.

Other pots support more adventurous activities. The Land Rover sponsored Go Beyomd bursary for example provides funding and a Land Rover Defender to allow non-scientific expeditions (my own car is a Defender – there is no better vehicle for this).

Unfortunately, I just cannot see how the large-scale, multi-researcher but single location expedition approach can achieve what the current approach achieves. Almost any location is ideal for only a small range of contemporary problems. What is good for climate change (e.g. the high latitudes) does not facilitate research in another (e.g. urbanisation), meaning that the RGS-IBG would have to balance one threat against another. The current approach allows the Society to adress a wide range of issues in a wide range of environments by all levels of researchers, and still to produice world class research. The RGS-IBG should be proud of this – it is a remarkable achievement.

The newspaper articles supporting the Beagle Campaign (of which there were many) gave the impression that both models are possible – i.e. the RGS-IBG could organise both its own expeditions and support smaller-scale field research projects. Superficially this is attractive, but I think one must be realistic. The available pot of funding to support the Society is inevitably at best static, and possibly contracting, in the current economic climate. I can find no reasons to believe that in this context the RGS-IBG would be able to maintain its existing activities and support large-scale expeditions. I might be wrong, but to try to do so would be immensely risky.

Therefore I believe that the current policy is the right one. However, I recognise that the planned review may recommend a change policy – and that once all the factors have been taken into account then would be the right way to go. The review will undoubtedly be thorough and balanced, and it will then be up to Council to decide on the best way forward once the recommendations have been made. Given that there are elections for places on Council next month – and one of the positions being contested is the one that I currently hold – there are plenty of opportunities to influence this policy.

Your comments are welcome.

Dave Petley
Hong Kong,
20th May 2009