The Royal Geographical Society could face a spate of academic resignations following a special general meeting on Monday to vote on sponsorship by Shell.
There have been strains within the society since the Institute of British Geographers, a professional academic body, last year merged with the larger RGS after a 60-year split. There are around 1,000 academics within a total membership of just over 13,000.
The tensions erupted early this year when the society's research and higher education division overwhelmingly backed a motion demanding that the RGS immediately axe Shell as a corporate patron, following the execution of environmental activists in Nigeria, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had campaigned against Shell's activities. There was also concern about the ethical position of a learned society accepting corporate sponsorship.
The RGS council decided by a substantial majority not to sever links with Shell, whose annual Pounds 45,000 support goes to the society's expedition advisory centre. But a group of fellows has now initiated the special general meeting and postal ballot on the issue.
Ron Johnston, professor of geography at Bristol University, said: "I hope the vote will be to end sponsorship, but I don't expect that to be the case. I think it will add to the tension between many of those who were formerly in the IBG and those who were formerly in the RGS and are not and never have been academic geographers."
Professor Johnston predicted that a vote supporting Shell would precipitate academic resignations, a view shared by David Gilbert of London University's Royal Holloway College, who proposed the original motion.
"I think there's no doubt that the meeting will vote in favour of Shell. I suspect the academic vote, if taken separately, would be very different," said Dr Gilbert.
Rita Gardner, the RGS director and former director of the environmental science unit at Queen Mary and Westfield College, said: "The society welcomes this opportunity for fellows to exercise their views on this important issue."