International Geoscience: A Perspective
A.J. Naldrett

When I first started to become involved with international geoscience, the biggest challenge was to master the multiplicity of acronyms. Even when I started to cope with these, there remained the problem of understanding what the names of these international science groups really meant, and how they interacted with one another. The target is a moving once since they are constantly becoming extinct, withering into inactivity (more likely than extinction), or evolving into new generations of organizations.
I was asked to give my personal perspectives of international geoscience. To provide a context, I’ve constructed the attached chart. It shows, from a strictly geological (i.e. not geophysical or biological) perspective, the principal interrelationships among the three major players on the international scene: the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). To see how ICSU, IUGS and UNESCO fit together, click here for a chart by A.J. Naldrett. 

UNESCO, of which the United States is not a member even though it continues to contribute to “worthy” programs, is guided by a biannual General Conference, at which all 192 full and associate member states attend and vote on an agenda prepared by an executive board and UNESCO headquarters staff. Critical decisions are the appointment of the 58-member executive board and its president, the budget, and the election of the Director General every six years. UNESCO operates a number of earth science programs and, through its Earth Sciences Division, a number of joint programs with other organizations, particularly ICSU and IUGS.

The two-year UNESCO budget approved at the 1999 General Conference for the period 2000-2001 was $544 million, of which $88 million is for science. Looking closer, $23 million was for basic and engineering science, largely information transfer; $7 million was for earth sciences and disaster reduction; and $6 million was for hydrology. UNESCO programs emphasize information and technology transfer to the developing world, and programs can become bureaucratic and politicized.
Nevertheless, good science finds a home in UNESCO, and the International Geological Correlation Program (IGCP) is an example. Its budget is miniscule, about $300,000 a year, but the 50 or so projects within the program serve as a focus for research requiring an international approach. The multiplication factor achieved through harnessing and focusing the individual research support of participating scientists is on the order of 10 to 20. Unlike many other international programs, ideas within IGCP come from the grass roots upward, not from the top down.

Founded in 1931as a successor to the International Research Council, ICSU operates on a budget of about $15 million per year that is derived from the contributions of member states and contracts from UNESCO and non-governmental organizations. It is governed by a general assembly composed of National Scientific Members and representatives of cooperating scientific unions, an executive, and a secretariat. Most national representatives are appointed by a country’s national science academy. The assembly meets every two to three years to review or ratify decisions of the executive board, elect this board and set general priorities for the council.

A major goal of ICSU is to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to international science, mainly through interdisciplinary standing committees and joint initiatives.

IUGS is a relative newcomer to the scene. The first of many International Geological Congresses was held in Paris in 1878. IUGS was established in 1961 to continue the congresses and to coordinate international geoscientific research. Now IUGS advises and assists organizers for the International Geological Congress every four years. It is governed by a council, composed of representatives of participating nations who meet during the International Geological Congress to oversee the actions of the executive and secretariat (the secretariat has a home at the Norwegian Geological Survey, which absorbs most of the cost). The annual IUGS budget ($582,000 this year) is derived from the dues of participating nations, contracts from UNESCO and other bodies, and grants from ICSU.

Traditionally, apart from the participation of scientists in the scientific agenda, the United States has been very involved in the governance of IUGS. It has been one of the pipelines through which U.S. contributions to “worthy” UNESCO programs have passed. IGCP is currently benefiting to the tune of $70,000 per year in this way, and if this pipeline ran dry, the effect on IGCP would be disastrous.

Still a void
From my perspective, an aspect in which IUGS could have been more active in the past is that of coordinating its 35 affiliated organizations. On the one hand, the 1998 International Mineralogical Association (IMA) conference that took place in Toronto obtained a grant of $15,000 from ICSU through IUGS. The grant helped scientists from disadvantaged countries attend the meeting, and clearly IMA and international mineralogy in general benefited from the affiliation.

On the other hand, it is difficult to see how affiliation is of any advantage to large U.S.-based earth science societies, such as the Geological Society of America (GSA). Perhaps this is the reason why, out of the 35 such societies, the only exceptions to filing the mandatory annual report to IUGS were the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (last 2 years), the Geochemical Society (last 2 years), the Society of Sedimentary Geology (last 2 years), and GSA (no 1999 report).

In keeping with our shrinking world, GSA, the America Geophysical Union and many similar organizations in the United States and elsewhere are currently seeking to become more active globally. In June, for example, GSA worked with the Geological Society of London to host a meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, on earth systems science. GSA is also working on a joint publication with the Geological Society of Australia, and is discussing future joint meetings with other international societies.
But these initiatives are bilateral. Its affiliated societies are what give IUGS its credibility as the summit organization of international geological science, and until now this resource has not been utilized effectively. It is encouraging to read in the recent IUGS “Action Plan” that much more attention will be given to its affiliated societies in the future.

A vast infrastructure of international geoscience exists, but this structure is largely unknown at the national level, unless an individual has had occasion to serve on an ICSU scientific committee, an IUGS commission or a UNESCO program. Much of such service is by invitation and tends to be restricted to a relatively small pool of acquaintances.
At the same time, the best science is financed at the national level and is necessarily presented at that level to an audience of those who might well be judging the next grant application. For example, who saves their best work to be revealed at an International Geological Congress? We have a gap that needs bridging, but we have no obvious way of bridging it except through piecemeal contacts between individuals and individual organizations in different countries. Hopefully, we will build better bridges in the future.

Naldrett is a geology professor at the University of Toronto and is vice president of the Geological Society of America. E-mail:

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