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Earth and environmental degradation

We humans are rather attached to the earth. Dependent, indeed, not to put too fine a point upon it. We live on it, as part of a no-longer-small part of the infinitesimally thin living skin on its surface. We breathe the air it produces, grow our food on it, build our houses on it (using its materials), and extract from it water and sources of energy. Within this century, we will be a substantially-less-small proportion of its living skin, with perhaps nine billion people jostling elbows in a bid to keep their share of those resources. So why do we devalue the study of the earth, to the point of making it virtually impossible?†

A few weeks ago HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, produced a consultation paper, which included some seemingly minor fine-tuning of university funding. ( 

The proposal is to split the science funding band (Band B) into two: Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences are relegated to a lower band (B2), which would have a weighting of 1.6 in the new HEFCE formula, compared to the previous weighting of 2.0. By contrast, Physics and Chemistry have been allocated to the new Band B1, which has retained its subject weighting of 2.0. What effect will this apparent piece of fine-tuning have on the earth sciences?†

The immediate effect would be to cut the level of funding, per student, by 20% relative to the teaching of the so-called Ďhardí sciences. HEFCE suggest that the absolute decrease is not as much as this: 7.4% after other changes in their complex funding arrangements are taken into account (while Physics and Chemistry may expect a rise of 15.7%). Even if this lower figure is the case, itís effect will be dramatic, especially on top of the overall decline in university funding of 37% in real terms over the past couple of decades.†

Many geology departments will be in danger of closure, as vice-chancellors make hard-nosed appreciations of the new funding levels. The surviving departments will be forced to cut the teaching budget, and in particular that aspect which has always made the teaching of geology, student for student, equally expensive as, say, the teaching of physics and chemistry. That is, the teaching of fieldwork.†

Is this important? After all, we now have marvellous new electron microscopes, ion probes and satellite-mounted sensors, that can identify mineral and rock types more quickly and effectively than ever before. Isnít fieldwork surely a little passť for the emerging (if thinned-out) generation of earth scientists?†

Here we have to distinguish what the general image of geology is (the arcane, if sometimes entertaining, study of rocks, minerals and dinosaurs) and what subject actually is, that is the study of the whole earth. And the earth is not only indispensable to us (Science Fiction-lovers will have to wait, still, for the practical construction of self-supporting colonies speeding towards distant star systems); it is also very complicated. 

Take a look at its present-day surface: a tightly interwoven system of continents, oceans, atmosphere, rivers, forests, swamps, volcanoes, ice-caps. Now translate this back through four and a half billion years of crowded environmental history. The crust of the earth is essentially a tangle of countless buried landscapes and ecosystems, in whose crevices are hidden those resources which keep us, collectively, alive, and whose histories are the best guide to future environmental change.†

Earth scientists must be able to cope, on a practical level, with this complexity, and on a scale which can encompass reading, say, 50 million years of ocean history preserved as the strata of an entire mountain, or the tortuous eruptive history of a killer volcano such as Montserrat or Vesuvius. 

This practical capability cannot be taught in the lecture room, the laboratory, or via a computer screen, though a number of the underlying facts and principles can. The only place to gain a functional understanding is out in the field. This is why the earth sciences are inherently more expensive to teach than those courses for which one can study in a library.
There has already been a general decline in the proportion of field-based training over the years, and this has led to employers of earth science graduates in the environmental, engineering, mineral exploration and water sectors becoming increasingly concerned about the levels of practical field skills among emerging graduates. More erosion of the teaching of field skills would place a further burden on the employer to provide additional training for new recruits. Only what now threatens is not so much erosion, as a landslide.††

If the costs of earth science teaching are to be screwed down to levels when it can only be taught from books and computer screens, then a large part of the science will die. The loss will be not only cultural, but will impact upon present and future generations trying to make their home on this planet.

Jan Zalasiewicz
Department of Geology

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Last updated: 7 November 2003 15:00
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