The Big Question: Has the Royal Geographical Society abandoned the spirit of adventure?
Tuesday 12 May 2009
Why are we asking this now?
Because a number of Fellows of this venerable society think that is exactly what it has done by abandoning the large-scale field expeditions to remoter parts of the globe it has mounted since its foundation in 1830, and which have involved legendary explorers from David Livingstone in Africa, to Scott of the Antarctic.
Has the RGS in fact changed its policy?
Yes it has. As a result of two policy reviews in 2001 and 2004, the society decided to abandon its own large-scale expeditions, and concentrate its funding instead on supporting a number of smaller geographical research projects carried out across the world by other institutions. Since 2005 it has given grants of more than £500,000 to 50 projects spanning 65 countries involving hundreds of scientists; the society says these projects have made substantial contributions to geographical knowledge.
What's wrong with that?
A number of very prominent RGS Fellows think that the society's role should be much more than that of a funding body for academic research carried out by others. They believe it should continue the formidable tradition which over nearly two centuries made it celebrated, of advancing geographical knowledge by mounting substantial expeditions of its own.
This group features a number of people who even in this day and age would be tagged in the popular mind as "explorers": they include Colonel John Blashford-Snell, often photographed in an old-fashioned pith helmet, who led a famous expedition down the Blue Nile in 1968; Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who has led numerous expeditions including a famous circling of the world via the two poles in 1982; Robin Hanbury-Tenison, whose expeditions to the Amazon and to Sarawak in the 1970s and 1980s helped to spark international concern for rainforests and for their tribal peoples; and Pen Hadow, the Arctic adventurer who is currently on an expedition to measure how fast the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean is melting. All these people, with numerous supporters, are fiercely opposed to the RGS switch in policy.
So what are they doing about it?
A 78-strong group of them has requested a Special General Meeting of RGS Fellows next Monday, at the society's splendid Norman Shaw headquarters in Kensington, with a resolution calling for the policy switch to be reversed, and large-scale expeditions to be undertaken once again.
All 10,500 Fellows are eligible to vote on the resolution, and a postal ballot has been organised; the result will be known at the time of the meeting, and added to the votes of those present (who will probably number several hundred). The Council of the RGS is strongly opposed to the resolution, and there are big guns on their side too: all living former RGS Presidents are against it and support the Society's current strategy. For the record, they are Professor Michael Wise, Lord Chorley, Sir Crispin Tickell, the Earl of Selborne, Professor Sir Ron Cooke, Sir Neil Cossons, and Professor Sir Gordon Conway.
So the disagreement is intense?
It certainly is. It has become acrimonious; tension is evident, even bitterness. Feelings are running high. The root cause of the RGS split is a shift in the very nature of the discipline of geography: from geography as exploration, to geography as research.
Exploration is geography's past, and a very glamorous past it was, dangerous and romantic. Yet by the end of the Second World War, certainly by the 1960s, most of the globe had been discovered, if not mapped in detail; there was no more North-west Passage to be searched for. So geographers made a subtle but major switch in their focus: they changed from merely describing places, to understanding what was going on in them. They went from being explorers in spirit, to being analysts. But this is a shift, which, it might be argued, some members of the Royal Geographical Society have never accepted.
Why couldn't they accept it?
It would far be too simplistic to say that the RGS has been in essence an explorers' club; the emphasis of its expeditions has always been strongly scientific. But there is some truth in the suggestion, and there is an undeniable and proud tradition of adventure associated with the society and many of its Fellows.
Some of the proposers of next week's resolution feel that things began to change when the RGS was amalgamated in 1995 with the Institute of British Geographers (its formal title today is "the Royal Geographical Society with The Institute of British Geographers" although the second part is often dropped.)
If the RGS was an explorers' club, the IBG was something quite different: it was the professional body of university geography lecturers, and some of next week's protesters feel that the influence of the academic geographers has now become paramount within the institution as a whole, and it is this that needs to be reversed, with a return to the society's adventurous and expeditionary roots.
How does the RGS justify abandoning its own expeditions?
The society says that this is what the geographical research community wants: it says geographical researchers prefer a substantial grants programme covering many projects to single large expeditions, and that the advancement of geographical knowledge can be better delivered this way.
The RGS Director since 1996, Dr Rita Gardner, a former university geography lecturer whose tenure could be said to symbolise the shift in the RGS's outlook, also points out that "times have changed". She says: "We recognise the fact that in many countries there are good local researchers, and they don't really want a team of 100 Britons descending on them."
How do the critics justify restoring the expeditions?
They claim that the RGS Royal Charter requires it to carry out its own expeditions (The RGS Council disputes this on a legalistic level). On an intellectual level, Dr Gardner's predecessor as Director, Dr John Hemming, an Amazonian explorer, scientist and historian who exemplifies the former tradition, says that the 18 major expeditions the society sent out since the Second World War all did nothing but good, yielding a mass of scientific research and establishing enduring links between British and host-country researchers.
What will happen if the critics carry the vote next Monday?
The RGS council says the consequences will be serious and that "the balance of our activities will change and some will end". The society would have to shift its funding away from its current broad research programme and start raising large sums for expeditions, of up to £1.5m per time, and this "will jeopardise the current high profile and strong brand of the Society with many stakeholders and members". But the critics don't think so. They think that's just what's required.
Should the RGS start running expeditions of its own once more?
*Expeditions have been the very lifeblood of the Royal Geographical Society since it was founded
*All RGS expeditions since the Second World War have had a substantial scientific pay-off
*Geography should continue to be about adventure as well as about research
*Advancing geographical knowledge is better done by a wide range of research programmes
*Single large expeditions would divert funding away from many other projects
*Times have changed: no corner of the world is undiscovered and the era of big expeditions is over
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