13 October 2010

Reflecting on Earth science perceptions

Posted by Jessica Ball

It’s Earth Science Week again – this time with an energetic twist. Volcanology and energy are certainly linked in the geothermal realm, but I’m going to skip that discussion and discuss an article I found recently. It’s called “United States earth sciences, status, and future: How bad, how good?”

ResearchBlogging.orgThe article takes a step back from the process of doing earth science and looks at its situation as a whole, and what we can (and should) be doing to help improve the public’s perception of our field. (That’s what Earth Science Week is all about – good outreach! – so I think it’s definitely a relevant topic for a post this week.)

I’ll start you off with a quote:

“In terms of public perception, however, earth scientists appear to come off rather badly, in spite of the fact that the nature of the Earth and the societal importance of mineral and energy resources, geologic hazards, and biological evolution are familiar concepts to the public. Everyone ‘knows’ what a physicist, chemist, or mathematician does (really?), possibly because the subjects are universally offered in secondary schools. Astronomy, however, seems to be more recognizable to the lay public than is geology, in spite of the more abstruse nature of the former, and neither science is generally taught in high school. Perhaps another reason for the lack of familiarity with geology stems from its remarkable diversity. Our field is almost unique among the sciences in being dependent on, and a blend of, all of the primary sciences and many purely geologic specializations as well.”

This is certainly true. Considering that things like fossil fuels, climate change, earthquakes, eruptions, tsunamis, and the like are in the news almost every day, it’s amazing to see how little people seem to know about the science behind the topics. A lot of the news seems to be about earth scientists dealing with ignorance about the process, implications and impacts of their work (like the Italian seismologists who were charged with manslaughter for not predicting the Aquila earthquake, or the climate scientist at the University of Virginia who’s being hounded by the state attorney general, or the government trying to keep petroleum geologists from talking about the worst case scenarios of the BP oil spill). And I think it stems from a basic lack of understanding of Earth science, as the quote describes.

Know the interesting thing about this article? It was an address by W.G. Ernst, a retiring President of the Geological Society of America…and it was given in 1986.

The same problems we have with public perceptions of Earth science today were happening almost a quarter of a century ago. Almost before I was born, in fact. So why are we still dealing with this lack of comprehension of and respect for the Earth sciences? Shouldn’t we have managed to open the public’s eyes to the wonders of our field by now?

There’s no simple answer to those questions. We are always in the process of trying to do improve the public’s perception of Earth science – through outlets like Earth Science Week, and blogging, and outreach from professional organizations. But there also seems to be a problem with getting people involved in Earth science from the start. On the whole, it’s simply not seen as an integral part of K-12 science curricula. As of 2007, there were only two states (Kentucky and North Carolina) that require an Earth science to graduate from high school, and fewer than a dozen others that integrate it into required courses. This means that a student’s only exposure to the Earth sciences might come at the college level, and quite possibly as a course taken only to fulfill a science requirement. One of the American Geological Institute’s Geoscience Workforce studies indicated that incoming college students perceived geology majors to be low in prestige, low in difficulty, and low-paying relative to majors like physics, chemistry, and biology. Those students didn’t have a very good view of Earth science before they even had a chance to experience it. Consequently, they go on into their adult lives without a good working knowledge of the world around them, and no real way to evaluate the validity and value of what they later hear through mainstream media.

It’s not all gloom and doom. Federal funding for Earth science research has more than doubled since 1986, and geoscience enrollments increased 8% in the 2008-2009 school year (a jump attributed to increased interest in energy and environmental issues). Salaries for Earth scientists have been increasing steadily for the past decade. There’s a lot to find attractive about Earth science – but we need to keep selling it! Which brings me back to outreach of any kind. We as Earth scientists (and Earth science enthusiasts) need to keep telling everyone that yes, we are real scientists who do important, useful work. We work hard to get our degrees, and earn educations that are unparalleled in their breadth and depth of study. And we have fun doing it! Earth science is fascinating, and whether it’s by trying to attract new grad students to your department, or get elementary school kids excited about rocks, or show off for thousands of people at a science expo, it’s immensely important to never stop supporting our science. So however you do it, get out there and fulfill the spirit of Earth Science Week!


Ernst, W.G. (1987). United States earth sciences, status and future: How bad, how good? Geological Society of America Bulletin, 99 (1)