Amateur Science and the Apparent Lack of High Impact Geo-Comms

I was trawling through Twitter during my lunch hour the other day and came across a random blog on fossils by an amateur palaeontologist (I forget which blog, apologies) and it suddenly occurred me: in how many other sciences can you have people who call themselves amateurs?

In geology, amateur collectors, fossil hunters, palaeontologists, mineralogists, petrologists (probably not volcanologists though) are commonplace, and it is perfectly acceptable to be a respected member of the geological community as an amateur – provided you get your facts right. The amateur community is very influential in geology, as collectors often have important specimens that would be extremely useful to professionals or museums. And yet, I had never really thought about how in other sciences you don’t generally find amateur physicists, biologists, chemists and so on.Being an amateur in these professions is regarded less highly than an amateur geologist and generally classed as more of an interest rather than ‘amateur’.

So what?

It may seem like a pretty minor observation but I think it hints at something bigger, an accessibility associated with geoscience that doesn’t exist so much in other sciences. Not because other sciences are less interesting or fun but because of the nature of the work involved in becoming part of the profession is more difficult: its easy to go rock collecting in your spare time using a notebook, rock hammer and hand lens (even a microscope if you happen to have one) to find out about the geological history of an area but accessing chemicals, a hadron collider (OK, a bit excessive) or dissecting animals are not household activities.

Geology is easy to pick up and get excited about. You really can’t get away from it no matter where you look, buildings made of stone (or derived from rock materials), landforms defined by the rocks and structures under your feet – even the vegetation you see is defined by the type of soils that it grows on, influenced by the rock’s chemistry. And of course there are fossils. Nothing is more exciting than finding your own little piece of preserved life from millions of years ago – especially if you are under 15! Getting kids into geology and becoming amateurs is incredibly easy because it can be a DIY discipline in many ways (not to understate geological research – which is essential and best left to the professionals!). Dinosaurs, volcanoes and life on Mars are pretty much some of the coolest things to study and geology covers all of them! Even once you may have retired from the profession it is tempting to keep those collections you have had for so long and remain a collector who actively uses and researchers their collection.

The problem with geology however is that it is not well enough known in the science arena. Not enough (high impact) science communication and public engagement connects broad audiences with geology, even with its fascinating hooks for many people. Although many kids will go through a stage of dinosaur-mania this does not always seem to last. Once you get older, I find that the engagement with geological sciences seems to trail off but pick up again when you become retired and like to go on ramblers walks or special interest groups.

Why is this? I really don’t know, but it may be to do with the fact that geology is an amalgamation of lots of other sciences that have been applied to earth problems so when it comes to science communication it seems to get left out because it is not necessarily a science in its own right. Silly, when the fact that you have a set of sciences that are already applied to awesome situations like volcanoes and mass extinctions you could use this to teach about chemistry and physics as well as geology. Maybe also unfortunately the demographic is ageing when it comes to geological societies. I know of a few clubs/societies for young geologists (below 18) and many for adults (comprising mostly over 60’s) but there is little in the way of societies or public engagement for anything in between specifically aimed at geology – not including university societies as involvement tends to cease after graduation.

Maybe the nature of the discipline in working for industry influences the amount of science communication in this area. Many who do a geology degree go on either to academia or industry meaning a high percentage of young graduates will be in commercial companies whose primary goal is to make money and not produce and disseminate knowledge like universities or other organisations.

I definitely think there is more room for high impact (i.e. large scale multidisciplinary publications such as Scientific American, Nature Blogs, the Guardian etc.) geology communication, and would love to know if anyone does know of groups that are led by a large cohort of young geology professionals, and why there appears to be less exciting high impact geology communication out there.

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13 thoughts on “Amateur Science and the Apparent Lack of High Impact Geo-Comms

  1. ‘Not enough science communication and public engagement goes into connecting people with geology’

    Where have you been 🙂 Surely people like Iain Stewart and his really popular programmes and lectures inspires many people in the geosciences. What about the big draws of the museums, Natural History Museum, Dynamic Earth and many others – with huge footfalls. Then there are organizations like Natural England and SNH working at many levels from local SSSI’s to World Heritage Sites and with many grassroots organizations such as RIGS groups. The BGS also has a very active public engagement team even working across all new media, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Youtube as well as TV radio etc. and of course their very popular open days. The GA and their many local groups, their lectures and the Festival of Geology. All reaching out and communicating their science in their different ways. So, I do think there is already a lot of good, high impact geology communication out there.

    The earth science societies are an interesting topic, as you mentioned the age distribution is skewed ‘demographic is ageing’ in your words :-). I think most societies are fully aware of this and rack their old brains about how to redress the balance. I’m sure they would be delighted to have one or two (or even a cohort) of really creative younger geoscience communicators (like yourself :-)) involved generating fresh ideas and engaging younger age groups.

    Bob

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the comment! Of course Iain Stewart does excellent TV communication, and so does the Natural History Museum and Natural England, SSSI’s, SNH and so on. Dynamic Earth I used to work at and I am involved with the Festival of Geology at UCL. However the Festival of Geology represents both my discussed demographics – older people and younger people with very little in between.

      However, following many prominent science writers and communicators online through Twitter and blogging I find that there is a significant deficit in the amount of high impact science communicators that are involved with geology. The main disciplines are in the life and health sciences, physics and chemistry. There are also lots of bloggers and tweeters that talk about geology, but not as many of these are as high impact as those in the other disciplines.

      I guess my point is not that there is a lack of enthusiasm for communication or effort in the geosciences, but that when it comes to the stuff that regularly hits the news (i.e. the Guardian, Scientific American, Nature Blogs, SciLogs and so on that I see most commonly covered and, importantly, shared online via the big multidisciplinary online publications) there is less geoscience than other science disciplines. I believe that geoscience is definitely cool enough and interesting enough to be right up there with that kind of impact.

      • Hi Jane

        It is very good to hear you were involved with the Festival of Geology – a great success I believe!

        Perhaps all undergraduates should be encouraged/taught to communicate their science?? Or, better still, for them to just get blogging or tweeting to develop the skills to become high impact geoscience communicators!

        So, what are your ideas to develop more ‘high impact’ communicators in geology/earth sciences?

        Bob

        • Yes, I believe they should! Teaching the benefits and best practice of science communication should be more prevalent in the curriculum.

          In terms of developing high impact comms – I believe integrating sci comms in university is one key point, and I am currently thinking of the others! Probably linking geology more closely to the solutions in global challenges such as climate change would be useful to get people to connect with it on a personal level more. Geology does get some bad press through issues such as fracking, oil spills and natural hazards (L’Aquila) so maybe we need to remove ourselves from this a little in the big press and show the exciting side of geology.

          If I come up with some more I am sure I will write about it! 😛

          • Perhaps there are ways of turning ‘bad press’ to good impact 🙂 . Incidentally we have started a blog for BGS staff to informally report on their work, what they are doing/going to be doing, so lots of new writers! The next blog post will be a guest slot for one of our volunteers (undergraduate from the Grant) writing about what she is doing on the Thin section project 🙂

            I look forward to your new ideas as they develop!

            Bob

  2. Devastatingly awesome post as per usual.

    Have you heard of the Young Earth Scientists Network (not to be confused with the same-named lunatics) -> http://www.networkyes.org/
    I don’t know if they do much sci comm stuff, but they’d be a good place to start a global movement of some sort.

    You’re one of the best geo-bloggers out there. Period. Have you considered asking Khalil (@notscientific) if you can join the scilogs network? That would be a pretty decent place to get things like this more publicity, deservedly so.

    • Yes! I have actually signed up to them very recently but I think I am still pending acceptance!

      Also, I have thought of asking Khalil and think this would be a good time to do so as I have made a point here and should really act on it!

      I am also trying to bring more scicomms into GfGD, where I think integrating communication skills at university level would be extremely useful to those wanting to get into international development. Just need to convince Joel!

      • Sure Joel would be up for it! Perhaps we could use ICL/UCL as a pilot test to see if we can get a small but diverse group of geoscience PhDs/postdocs/whatever involved in some sort of blogging network through the GfGD main blog site? (or even through the EGU?)

        Joel also just got invited to the forthcoming EGU AGM in Vienna – I wonder if it would be a good place to give some sort of talk/workshop/passive-aggressive enforcement for the benefits of geoscience blogging there?

        • Also using the great ICL/UCL scicomms/public engagement departments for this would be great. I think piloting some scicomm workshops in London would be a great idea.

          We already ask for students to guest blog for us but this doesn’t happen as much as we would like. I think we need to encourage it more, and also get more students on Twitter and taking an active part in global discussions. These are all things we would like to take forward at GfGD.

  3. There are quite a few environment and climate change bloggers out there, many with backgrounds in the earth sciences, so perhaps geology blogging is falling between two stools at the moment, and not making it directly into natural science blogging or into much climate change discussion – as you note in the comment above!

    On the subject of amateurs and professionals, almost all geologists were amateurs in the early nineteenth century, as were most “scientists” – the word was coined in the 1830s. Of course, as you say, in the lab sciences it’s difficult today to be an amateur because the context is so different, but I guess it hasn’t changed quite so much in at least some areas of the earth sciences (although I’m not sure it would be easy to be an amateur geophysicist!). What about other field sciences, such as botany, or, to spread the net a little wider, archaeology? Are there still active amateur contributors in those, do you know? I’d assume there are, but I can’t say I know for sure.

    • Hi Leucha,

      Thanks for the comment! I think you are right, much geology gets subsumed by other larger and more pupular fields that affec people more directly like climate change. Although there is geology in these online publications and blogs it is not obviously labelled as such and therefore the discipline doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

      Yes, I agree there are other amateurs like botanists, bird watchers and even archaeologists but I think the difference is that the amateur geology community has a very large sway in the professional world of geology. I found this when doing my masters project at the NHM working with the geology collections and realising that amateurs can provide a lot of useful information for geoscientists in the form of being able to identify minerals or to provide excellent specimens to collections. Amateurs also provide information on resources like MinDat, which is used by professionals.

  4. Pingback: Weekly Round-up (Dec 10-14, 2012) | scicommnetwork

  5. Pingback: Amateur Science and the Apparent Lack of High Impact Geo-Comms | Science Communication Blog Network

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