Communicating Environmental Geoscience - a proposal

Submitted by IUGS Geoindicators Initiative management group, September 2005

The GeoIndicators Initiative has had many successes, offering training courses, numerous publications to the scientific community, and has gained a measure of acceptance in the geoscience community. However the tools developed have only been adopted by a few policy and decision makers. This we believe is illustrative of a wider problem - that of communicating environmental geoscience. GEM in its proposal to IUGS for its establishment expressed the problem succinctly:- "it remains true that scientists in many parts of the world still have great difficulty in convincing policy makers that environmental geosciences are of great importance to sound, safe, and economic decision making."

It has become clear to us that there is a gulf between scientists and those who could be using science in planning and decision-making. This is a problem perhaps first recognised by the British novelist CP Snow, who outlined the "two cultures" of science and humanities over 50 years ago. Although Snow's argument was aimed at the lack of comprehension between scientists and those with an arts background, years of increasing specialisation has made the divide between scientists, and those that might use their science wider. The language and methods used have diverged to the extent that there is a mutual lack of comprehension - scientists can rarely understand the work being done in other disciplines, or even by specialists within their own discipline. Even though policy makers and politicians may have some science education, this can be inadequate when science is presented without consideration for its audience.

The problem is nowhere greater than in environmental geoscience where the science has direct and important applications for policy and decision-making. There are numerous examples of where scientific work has clearly indicated a direction in planning and policy, yet this has been ignored. This ranges from the global scale, where some countries resist scientific advice on climate change; to the local, where people live in places that are highly vulnerable to landslide, earthquake, flood, or other hazards. Policy makers frequently ignore the natural variation in earth systems when making decisions, and lack the long-term perspective that palaeoenvironmental research can offer.

The difficulty lies on both sides - policy makers lack the scientific background and skills to understand what scientists are telling them, and scientist lack the ability to present their science in a form that is comprehensible. The public frequently has difficulty understanding scientific assessments of environmental problems.

We suggest that this problem might best be addressed by development of a working group within GEM.

GEM's objectives state:- "GEM provides guidance to geoscientists on how best to integrate geoscience into environmental policy and to communicate the concepts to potential interest groups such as policy makers, politicians, environmental organisations, scientists from other disciplines, and the general public."

However the current working groups (urban geology, cross-border geology, geology and ecosystems) do not explicitly address the major issue of communication. In addition GEM in its working plan for the next five years states one task is to "organize focused workshops to help geoscientists to communicate with potential interest groups within and outside of the geosciences".

We propose here is that the GeoIndicators Intitiative (in its final year of funding from IUGS) provides the impetus to setting up a new working group of GEM - "Communicating environmental geoscience". The objective of this working group is to develop and improve the tools and skills environmental geoscientists need to communicate effectively with non-specialists - politicians, policy makers, regulators, educators, and the public at large.