The politics of exploration

Some readers may be aware of the Beagle Campaign and its desire for the Royal Geographical Society to reactivate its own multidisciplinary field research expeditions. This campaign resulted in a heated Special General Meeting at the Society, a number of articles in the press and fed into the publication of the review on how the Society advances geographical knowledge through research, including scientific expeditions.

Within this ongoing saga, I have two roles: one as Director of Digital Explorer and the second as a member of Council of the Royal Geographical Society. My name has been used to support various stances and this article seeks to put the record straight.

As Director of Digital Explorer, I have a clear and unwavering vision of
what exploration and expeditions can be. This vision has as its basis my experiences as a geography and citizenship teacher in secondary schools in the UK. The problem that I faced and now seek to address is how to engage young people in global issues such as climate change, habitat conservation and cultural understanding.

The model that we have developed at Digital Explorer is focused just as much on educational output as field research. Teams of young people or scientists work in the field to investigate an issue and then share this with schools around the world using a combination of multi-media and satellite technologies via an interactive website. This model brings the frontiers of knowledge direct to the classroom. Recent examples of our work include taking a team of students to Pakistan to counter negative media stereotypes (first episode to be broadcast on Monday 8 November) and working with a team in Antarctica, powering an education base using renewable energy.

This appreciation of schools and young people as an important audience for expeditions is not exclusive to Digital Explorer, and our evolution over the past few years has coincided with an increasing number of expeditions creating educational resources and interacting live from the field with pupils.

With this background and context in mind, I can happily state the following beliefs:

  1. Expeditions should work to inspire the next generation to be truly global citizens by enhancing their understanding of the world
  2. Expeditions should aspire to a professional level of communications (through film, photography and writing, both on and offline)
  3. An expedition’s objectives should relate to wider societal concerns
  4. The world of exploration is big enough to encompass a range of different types and styles of expedition (taking into account the above points)
  5. An expedition that is inspiring and exciting is more likely to engage an educational and generalist audience

These are my personal views and have their practical expression through my work with Digital Explorer and in aiding other expeditions to utilize technologies such as the internet, Google Earth, video, photography and social media to share their experiences and finding, in particular with a youth and educational audience.

In my role as a recently elected Ordinary Councillor for Education of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), my first responsibility is to act in the best interests of the Society. The Society has a great history and more importantly has a strong current position sitting at the crossroads of robust research, world-respected expertise in expeditions and a central position in formal geography education. Through combining these strengths, the Society has a unique opportunity to disseminate new knowledge about the world to a school and generalist audience. This is something to be celebrated.

As Ordinary Councillor for Education, I have a particular interest in two excerpts from the Review:

We plan to deliver five new Research Partnership Initiatives over the next ten years:

Supporting outreach and education activities as a partner in large projects organised by other groups, bringing the Society’s considerable expertise in involving wider communities in research and disseminating results to schools, the general public and policy makers.


To ensure that we make more of the Society’s commitment to research and discovery through fieldwork, we propose the following:

Provide added value, for example, developing educational resources to share the findings of selected Society-supported projects with teachers and pupils and the public.

I welcome the recent announcement of the ‘From the Field’ Awards in collaboration with The Goldsmiths’ Company, enabling geography teachers to work alongside research expeditions to develop educational resources for the classroom, and look forward to giving what expertise I have in this area to aid the Society in delivering on the Review.

In terms of the shape and focus of Society supported expeditions, I imagine that there will be interesting debates, passionate but not heated, in the months to come. My bias will be towards supporting those expeditions that inspire and educate, but there will be others with different backgrounds and different views.

I believe in a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ world, and I would ask those who seek to portray me as belonging to one camp or another to read this article, respect my views and support this vision.

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