The battle at the heart of Geography

Tuesday of this week I along with 700 others spent a wonderful evening being entertained by the wonderful Stephen Fry at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), London. In a lecture theatre  which had heard, first hand, the exploits of the great explorers Livingstone, Scott, Shackleton and in the modern era Neil Armstrong, we listened to a great Englishman who admitted to be awed to be speaking in a room of such historical importance.

For most of its history the RGS has sponsored expeditions increasingly scientific in nature to explore the planet, and of course there is still much to be discovered by “Field Science”, getting out and making measurements of our every changing environment.

Early this year I had the privilege of meeting Pen Hadow a modern polar explorer who is currently on an expedition to the North Pole making vitally important measurements of the ice thickness. This is very much the model of a modern day expedition, requiring all the skill, expertise and endurance of the past expeditions, while making use of modern technologies such as Google Earth, RSS feeds and YouTube to communicate their progress and findings in almost real time.

To the man in the street, Hadow and the  Catlin Arctic Survey Expedition really encapsulates what Geography is..


Catlin Arctic Survey
Catlin Arctic Survey



During the 1990’s the RGS shifted it focus towards Academic Geography, and in 1995 merged with the Institute of British Geographers, and since then it’s focus both in terms of direction and funding has been to support the academic study of geography in Universities and Research Institutes and away from large expeditions.

This shift has upset many, and a group of fellows are now campaigning for a return to “field science”, not replacing totally the support of academic geography, but providing more balance. Their case is presented at the Beagle Campaign website, the campaign rather neatly is named after Darwins expedition which itself was part funded by the RGS.

I must admit I find their case quite compelling, it was field science that many years ago turned me into a Geographer, and I continue to be inspired by the exploits of those who venture into the still many inhospitable parts of the world to make important scientific measurements, and bring make vivid descriptions of our fragile planet.

In the age of Google Earth such exploration becomes even more meaningful, as it and other Internet tools provide a way of quickly disseminating the findings of expeditions in a way that is accessible to all.

I will be voting for resolution which calls on the RGS to return to mounting its own multidisciplinary research projects for the advancement of geographical science and knowledge.

Geography has perhaps a last chance to regain its relevance in the eyes of the general public,  organising high profile expeditions which demonstrate the value of science in the field would be a great way of doing this, in a way that funding desk based research such as Global change and post-socialist urban identities” does not !

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.

3 replies on “The battle at the heart of Geography”

Have been reading the two propositions myself.

I was a member both of the RGS’s field science 2005-6 Oman Wahiba Sands Project (a period I remember fondly as much for the good times had as for the hard work undertaken) and of a “mostly undergraduate” “expedition” to Nepal in 1984. In addition I have nothing but admiration for the likes of Pen Hadow to whom Ed refers and certainly these types of one off expeditions (like our one to Nepal in some ways) do add to the body of literature on the subjects/science concerned (be it body performance, ice thickness or allelopathy).

Most participants in such expeditions recognise this (that one off observations validate nothing in and of themself) and can only contribute to the body of knowledge that can be used in the disproving of any relevant null hypothesis.

In this context the vast majority of the studies that I have borne witness to on expeditions (and on development projects too) have a natural tendency to stand alone and it really makes little odds whether the project is one person in a canoe or a heavily financed and branded undertaking. Ultimately the reports, observations, science and analysis lead to decision making and planning making geography the great integrating discipline still (this is no last chance saloon).

The demand is (generally) for every greater granularity of understanding, in part as defence against the nay-sayers of the great challenges of our time who have a tendency to generalise from the particular. Science’s gain (from fragmented, individual often academic research) is also geography’s gain (location intelligence via mashup if you like).

Therefore, I really don’t believe that the additional sums required to mount the type of expeditions of yore that some fellows want has anything other than the (limited) social merit of my time in the dunes of the Wahiba. As Pen Hadow proves, the global media love a loner against the odds. So, sure, raise more money, spend it wisely (on field science), support field science for the grand challenges (cf Terrafuture 2009) and use these RGS resources to tell the world about all the loners and all their valuable research but don’t do it to plant a flagpole in a foreign field.

Encouraging to see a backlash against the postmodern bent to academic geography. While it has its place – no one outside of the ivory tower (and many inside) cares or even understand the obtuse lexicon driving it. Funding research that the public and media will pay attention to can only help make geography relevant. Here is hoping the discipline shakes itself from its current obsession with navel gazing.

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