Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Geologists and shelf stackers

Apart from the coal, the oil, the gas, the plastics, the minerals, the water, the understanding of natural hazards, the evidence for evolution, what have geologists ever done for us?

The geo-twitter-sphere has exploded in the last couple of days with irate geologists. You'd have thought that it would take a lot to upset such a group of usually 'rock-solid' people, but Iain Duncan Smith's comments that shelf-stacking is just as important as geology, has clearly upset a lot of geologists.

I think we all know how important geology is to the way the world works - that's why a geology degree can be a really useful thing. (In case you're not sure, check out the GeolSoc twitter feed for the many comments explaining exactly why geology is important for putting food on the shelves).

But I think we all might be over-reacting just a little bit to IDS's comments. My twitter stream has been full of little else in the last two days. The Geol Soc has even felt compelled to do a press release on the matter, now reported on by the Mail, Independent and Guardian among others.

I don't think IDS was really trying to belittle the importance of geologists, and I hope most of us are smart enough to realise this. Clearly he was trying to suggest that we should not be so disdainful of low-paying, so called 'menial' jobs, and the people that do them. Moreover, that taking any job is better than being unemployed.

We could be talking about the bigger issues relating to this incident - is it right that we expect benefits claimants to take on work experience when/where available? If so, can we structure it so that it is a little smarter? For instance: it might be best for someone who sits on the sofa doing nothing all day to be compelled to work in a supermarket. However, for someone already volunteering in a museum, shelf stacking might not be the best use of their time.

Finally, is it right that a private company (Poundland) gets to benefit from essentially free labour? Surely Poundland should at the very least be paying their benefits (or even paying them a proper salary) for the duration that they work there?

Instead, we're all upset about IDS apparently showing disrespect to geology, with the overdone, slightly-fake-seeming howls of outrage (like a footballer going down for a cheap free-kick), to the point that our principal learned society has felt the need to put out a press release on the issue. I think we as a community look more than a little silly and oversensitive.

When 7 of the world's top 10 companies by revenue are oil and gas companies (so have geology at the core of their business), I think we can afford to be a little more mature, and a little less quick to take offence if someone inadvertently implies that we're not that important.

Update (17:00, 20.02.2012): There's another piece in the Guardian on the IDS comments issue. It raises the salient point that it is important that we as geologists remind the world of our relevance from time to time, that much of the public have little idea about what we do. Perhaps the majority assume that all we do is fossils and volcanoes? If that's true, who's fault is that? Whenever I see geology outreach being done, it's either about volcanoes or it's about fossils (or, to be really exciting, both at the same time).

If we as geologists have an image problem (and I'm really not sure that we do), the outreach we do should highlight the role of geology in supplying the raw materials needed for this modern life of ours. Rather than waiting for the next ministerial slip-up to advertise our subject....


  1. I'm not sure the UK media would take much notice if the Geological Society issued a press release about Poundland/benefits/work experience. They have to stick to what they know!

    1. They wouldn't, hence one wonders why the need for a press release at all.

      I'd be more interested in seeing some comment from the Geol Soc on the percentage of geology graduates in employment, and of that percentage what is the average salary. I suspect that as a subject we do fairly well on this, but now the publicity is all about a geology graduate unable to get a job, which isn't a great encouragement for students to go spend £9,000 on a degree in our subject.

  2. I'm worried about how people will react to the impression that a geology graduate can't get any work, as that isn't true now, and it wasn't true in 2010/2011, when Cait Reilly was looking for a job. There were decently paid graduate geologist posts out there, but she wasn't applying for those. She was trying to get a job in the museums sector, which is much more difficult to get a job in than in industry. But I suspect that the nuance of that will be lost in the media coverage.