Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by The Geological Society

  The Geological Society, founded in 1807, is the oldest geological society in the world. It has almost 9000 members worldwide, and is both a learned and professional body, recognised by the DTI as the chartering authority for appropriately qualified Fellows.

  1.  The Society's evidence focuses on:

    —  the Government's strategy for science

    —  Foresight

    —  the public understanding of science


  2.  The extractive industries in the UK (including hydrocarbons and coal) accounted for 1.7 per cent (£12.75 billion) of the UK's GDP in 1998. Geoscientific knowledge and expertise underpins much of the work of these industries, and also has a major role to play in addressing environment issues, such as the restoration of the contaminated land, waste disposal, water supply and quality, coastal retreat and climate change.

  3.  In its recent evidence to the Committee's inquiry into "The Scientific Advisory System—Scientific Advice on Climate Change", the Society drew attention to the need for a stronger geoscience perspective to be included in government research into the effects of global climate change, and the need for more studies of the consequences of volcanic winters. These are two examples that illustrate our general concern that government needs to pay more attention to the contribution of the geosciences to policy making concerning sustainability and the environment.

  4.  We are concerned that the 1993 White Paper, with its focus on wealth creation and the quality of life, has resulted in under-investment in the acquisition of baseline data collected by the British Geological Survey, research institutes and universities. Such information is essential to formulate and implement policies concerning sustainability and the environment at national and local levels. Examples include:

    —  Maps of geology, hydrogeology and potential hazards (due to natural geological conditions and mining).

    —  The acquisition of time-series data showing changes in climate, groundwater conditions, coastal retreat and advance, and ecological change, not only in recent and historical times, but also over much longer periods of time (thousands to millions of years) before the impact of major anthropogenic changes. Without such data, there is little, or no, objective basis on which to measure change, and to begin to separate out anthropogenic from natural changes.

  5.  Many advances in the geosciences in the last century contributed to wealth creation and the quality of life in a long-term strategic fashion, but might well have failed this test of success if the originators had not been free to undertake "blue skies" research. Many of these advances were interdisciplinary in nature, and the same will apply in future. It is important, therefore, that future research funding is not "discipline blinked". Competition between individual scientists and groups may be healthy, but competition between grant giving Research Councils based on pre-judged "areas of science" may not be the best way of achieving value for money.


  6.  The Society has the impression that so far Foresight outputs have had a rather limited impact on geoscience related business, and that they are not widely known amongst our membership, 60 per cent of whom work in industry and commerce. Not surprisingly, therefore, in 1998, in its response to the OST's consultation on the next round of Foresight, the Society expressed strong reservations about the wisdom of combining the Energy Panel with that dealing with Natural Resources and Environment. The relatively new Energy and Natural Environment Panel has, as far as we know, yet to act on suggestions for geoscience-related topics to address, such as aggregate production and use, and landfill siting and containment strategies. Such problems once again highlight the difficulties of expecting research to yield immediate effects on wealth creation and the quality of life (see paragraph 4).

  7.  In its 1998 response to OST, the Society proposed that the panel addressing "Education, skills and training" should consider the implications of sustainable development. We suggested much more needed to be done, particularly at school level, to ensure that all citizens have a broad knowledge and understanding that our quality of life and that of future generations is dependent on the wise use of renewable and non-renewable resources. Foresight outcomes, therefore, should provide a business/industry perspective on the changes needed to school and university education and training, and to the provision of life-long learning, in order to achieve sustainable development. We are not aware that the panel has pronounced publicly on these issues.


  8.  Realising our Potential gave a most welcome fillip to the standing and practice of PUS activities and charged the newly formatted Research Councils with providing financial assistance to that end. However, the paradigm remained unchanged from the Bodmer Report (1985) of the Royal Society—scientists communicating to the public. The world has since moved on. What is required now, as Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal, said in opening Science Week in March this year, is a process that will enable the average citizen to feel that the products of research and science will "empower, not imprison them". This will need a genuine dialogue involving a willingness on both sides, to address, as it were, the other side's examination paper as well as answering their own.

  9.  The geoscience community has long experience, through public enquiries and the like, in understanding public reactions to the exploitation of their subject in new proposals for quarrying, for radioactive waste disposal, for new transport routes, etc. and in providing a sound basis for informed debate. These examples are all issues with which Government and Parliament are much concerned. The challenge, as we see it, is, therefore, to find the appropriate national and local institutional framework(s) through which scientific, social and political inputs to major public policy issues can be discussed in an open, responsive and non-adversarial manner. To do this requires new kinds of PUS activities aimed at developing dialogue both between scientists and the public, and scientists and government.

  10.  The Geological Society plans to increase its educational activities in collaboration with other organisations, and the delivery of these will be designed in the context of the comments in paragraphs 4, 8 and 9. We look to government and to non-governmental organisations alike to help develop a genuinely two way dialogue. Museums and Science Centres, consensus conferences and internet exchanges could provide some of the more obvious vehicles for the dialogue, given the necessary resources. But it will be active encouragement by a Government genuinely seeking transparent debate and policy input, from public and science together, that will be the key to dialogue.

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