Published online 19 May 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.491

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Exploration divides geographers

Campaigners pledge to fight on after Royal Geographical Society rejects resolution to bring back big expeditions.

Hurry Inlet, Scoresbysund, GreenlandGeographers have voted against organizing big exploratory missions.Punchstock

A resolution to rekindle large exploratory expeditions at the United Kingdom's Royal Geographical Society (RGS) has been thrown out by fellows of the society. But campaigners say the vote's result highlights growing division within the world's largest scholarly geographical society.

The resolution was initially brought by a group of six RGS fellows in March 2007, and backed by a further 74 fellows two years later. A special general meeting to vote on the resolution took place yesterday at the society's offices in London.

The argument centres on large RGS-led expeditions, which the society decided to stop organizing after reviews of research practices in 2001 and 2004. Instead, it offers grants for researchers to undertake smaller, more focused projects.

"We don't think it's good enough," says Justin Marozzi, a writer who has travelled extensively in the Far and Middle East and one of the six who originally tabled the resolution.

"[The] RGS had a history of amazing expeditions," says Alistair Carr, an adventurer and travel writer who first suggested the resolution. "It seemed they hadn't done anything for a decade." So Carr helped to found the Beagle Campaign, which is calling for the RGS to organize its own large expeditions in future.

Living in the past?

But Gordon Conway, the society's president, argues that big expeditions are not the appropriate way to tackle pressing global problems. "The big problems of today are climate change, food security and water security," he says. "These are projects that aren't amenable to a great big expedition." Rather than a romantic adventure, researchers prefer smaller, focused scientific projects, he says. "Twenty-first-century geography, not nineteenth-century geography, is what we're talking about," he adds.

Conway urged fellows to vote against the resolution in a letter sent out with ballot papers. The vote came out in favour of the society, with 2,590 fellows voting against the resolution, and votes for numbering 1,607.

Both sides have claimed the result as a win. "I'm absolutely thrilled," says Carr, "we went from 80 [supporters] to 1,600 in 60 days".

“Twenty-first-century geography, not nineteenth-century geography, is what we're talking about.”

Gordon Conway
President, Royal Geographical Society

Meanwhile, in a statement released after the vote, Conway said: "This vote of confidence in the society's policy and leadership means that we will continue to support research and scientific expeditions with a wide range of grants as one of the many ways of delivering our Charter objective of advancing geographical science in a way fit for the 21st century." Despite the result of the vote, Conway says he would not completely rule out large expeditions in future.

John Hemming, director of the RGS from 1975 to 1996, is in favour of the resolution and argues that big expeditions can be scientifically productive. Hemming led a large expedition to Brazil in 1987 to explore the rainforest that involved around 30 British scientists and 120 Brazilian scientists. "It produced seven books and 130 refereed papers," he says.

To fund such big expeditions in future, the RGS says it would need to pull funds away from other projects. But Hemming disagrees. The money for small projects is often bequeathed and is ring-fenced, he says, and support of larger expeditions would not alter that. Cash for large expeditions has to be raised separately and they do not impose a financial burden on the RGS. "The big projects were completely self-financing," he says. "The fallacy is that one cancels out the other."

Regroup

Simon Reid-Henry, a geography lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, who is not an RGS fellow, is pleased with the outcome of the vote. "It would have constrained the good work of the RGS," he says of the resolution.

He argues that geographical research is performed differently today from in the early days of the RGS, when he says imperialistic objectives were more prominent. "Research is something that needs to be organized from the ground up," he says. Looking into climate change, for example, will involve physical scientists and biological scientists, but also social scientists to understand the geopolitics of an affected area, he says, and he thinks this kind of research would be impossible to roll into a large exploratory expedition.

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Stephen Blackmore, Regius Keeper at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, UK, has offered his support to the Beagle Campaign as a non-geographer. He says that the RGS's strength is its ability to bring different disciplines together. "It is an organizing force," he says. In his field of botany much remains to be explored, and large expeditions allow samples to be taken over many seasons rather than just a few months, he says.

The Beagle's campaigners will now regroup and consider their next move. "We continue, there's no question about it," says Marozzi. The vote has split the society, he says. "There is clearly division. A solution should be found."

"We're not rebels," he adds. "We're trying to restore balance." 

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