'Think big' campaign splits geographers

Media-savvy explorers outflank academic members of Royal Geographical Society. Zoe Corbyn reports

June 4, 2009

With its aura of adventure and romance, the public appeal of exploration is clear.

But there is growing anger among academic members of the Royal Geographical Society about a campaign for it to reinstate big expeditions at the expense of other activities.

The Beagle Campaign has won support from famous explorers such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Sir Chris Bonington since it was launched in March, but critics believe that it may push the society down a road that has little scientific merit.

Amid warnings that the campaign could split the society, academic geographers have hit out at the way it has worked the media and left little room for debate.

Responding to a recent article in the national press, Ron Johnston, professor of geography at the University of Bristol, said: "It hurts when you see academics called nerds."

Last month the Beagle Campaign, the brainchild of six expedition enthusiasts, forced a ballot of RGS members on whether the society should move from funding small research projects towards undertaking single, large interdisciplinary expeditions.

But although the explorers lost the vote 38 per cent to 62 per cent, the campaigners have vowed to continue their fight and to push for greater representation on the RGS council.

Their tactics have prompted scholars to contact Times Higher Education over concerns that their voices are being drowned out.

They argue that if the RGS refocused its resources in the way that is being suggested, a wide range of academic geography projects geared towards addressing global problems would suffer.

They say that although large, high-profile expeditions might be good for public relations, they are expensive, time-consuming and deliver little scientific return.

Some also question the "discover and conquer" ideal that they say colours the campaign.

"I know that the vote was won by the academics, but one feels that in the court of the media we are losing the battle," said Jonathan Rigg, head of geography at Durham University.

"We are a whole bunch of slightly arcane, crusty academics up against some very media-savvy and exciting individuals.

"It is very hard for us to fight that battle. But in terms of the science and the geography, the evidence is that (big expeditions) really haven't delivered a lot.

"We are getting a much better return in pure scientific terms from these smaller and more focused projects."

In response, Alistair Carr, who initiated the Beagle Campaign, said the society had lost "a decade of opportunities" because of its policy.

He added that the Beagle Campaign was "here to stay" and was an important voice for fellows who have "increasingly felt disenfranchised" by the society's policies.

However, scholars fear the rift could potentially split the society.

Previously, academic geographers had their own learned society, the Institute of British Geographers, but this merged into the RGS in 1995.

"If the campaign continues ... then I can see the pressure building up to start our own organisation again," Professor Johnston said.

A major review of the RGS's policies will take place later this year under the presidency of TV presenter and author Michael Palin, who replaces Sir Gordon Conway, a government chief scientist.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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