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The stakes remain high. Although the debate has largely been confined to 10,500 Fellows, given the status and historical significance of the RGS, its ramifications for geography are likely to be felt far more widely worldwide. The contention revolves around the Society's failure to mount even one large multidisciplinary research project — as expeditions are now known — in a decade. As astonishing as it may sound, the RGS no longer conducts any of its own research, a serious indictment of its loss of vision and purpose. It is no exaggeration to say that through its major field projects of the 19th and 20th centuries, which went to the ends of the earth, the RGS (with the Institute of British Geographers, to give it its full title) has contributed much to our knowledge and understanding of the world. Names like Scott, Shackleton, Livingstone, Speke, Stanley, Burton, Doughty and Everest all convey a humbling thrill when visitors step inside the Society's magnificent Ondaatje Theatre. 

The Society's response to this debate provides a sobering snapshot of what it is, or what it can be, to be a geographer today. Among six projects that the RGS says demonstrate its commitment to support (other people's) research, are two fairly eyebrow-raising studies. One, conducted by Dr Craig Young and colleagues from Manchester Metropolitan University, is entitled "Global change and post-socialist urban identities". Another, led by Dr Heaven Crawley and colleagues from Swansea University, is "Children and global change: Experiencing migration, negotiating identities". Professor Ian Swingland, founder of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology, is unimpressed. "My scientific and international experience strongly suggests to me that neither of these projects is academically robust, likely to change anything on the ground, improve the status of the environment or the social woes of the world, and they are frankly to a large degree incomprehensible," he wrote in an open letter to Sir Gordon Conway, the RGS president. "They will make no difference to anything other than those prosecuting the work. What are ‘post-socialist urban identities' exactly? What are ‘children's reflexive negotiations of their identities' precisely? And does it matter? And will this work educate the future ways we can help the world?"

What such research appears to demonstrate is the tragic introversion and irrelevance of swathes of contemporary academe, academics writing for academics, leaving the rest of the world none the wiser — or better off. In an era when environmental woes and challenges press in on us, the RGS's failure to provide high-profile leadership on vital issues such as climate change, global warming, biodiversity, the forced migration of species, deforestation, desertification and a host of other scientific unknowns is deeply regrettable. What can one say of post-structuralist cultural studies other than they provide careers for a certain breed of academic geographer? 

The internal RGS debate has nothing to do with romance, nostalgia or pith helmets, as critics of The Beagle Campaign have rather lazily argued. It is all about science and real-world, empirical observation and exploration at a critical time for humankind and its interaction with the planet. Often there is simply no substitute for getting out into the field. 

As the environmental scientist James Lovelock warns in his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, "Observation in the real world and small-scale experiments on the Earth now take second place to expensive and ever-expanding theoretical models" of questionable reliability.  "Our tank is near empty of data and we are running on theoretical vapour." Herodotus, Humboldt and Darwin would have understood this in a flash. 

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Armchair Geographer
November 28th, 2012
3:11 AM
Wow, what a great point. as someone who has been disapointed with the direction of geography for a long time, at last we get someone willing to stand for a position. I am one of those urban geographers, a planner no less, but where is the observation? I ask you why do we have so many untested theories and so little fact?

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