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Geological Society Policy

A statement of policy on the International Geoscience Programme (IGCP) from the Geological Society of London, 2009


1. Background

The International Geoscience Programme (IGCP) was established in 1972 to foster collaboration between Earth scientists, with particular reference at that time to aiding inter-communication between European countries on either side of the 'iron curtain'. It was a co-initiative on the part of UNESCO's Division of Earth Sciences (now the Division of Ecological and Earth Sciences) and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), both of which provide financial support.

Co-management of the programme by the IUGS exposes the IGCP to a broad range of Earth science institutions and programmes around the world, including the IUGS national bodies.
abudhabi_river_resized.jpgIGCP projects are open to scientists from all nations. The involvement of geoscientists from the developing countries (both as participants and leaders), and the involvement of young scientists (notably by way of the Young Scientist Projects), is maintained at a high level; thus, IGCP directly contributes to capacity building by transfer of training and information, thus achieving one of UNESCO’s principal goals.

Award of Project Status by the IGCP Scientific Board depends upon the suitability of the project within the framework of 'Geoscience in the Service of Society' and, with some exceptions, involvement of at least 15 nations in any one project.

Projects must satisfy IGCP requirements, particularly with respect to having a significant applied geological component and a network large enough to include involvement of scientists from, and organization of some workshops within, several developing countries. Further details are provided in the latest Guidelines and Proposal Form (2009) at

Once Project Status has been accorded, and subject to satisfactory annual peer review under the IGCP Scientific Board, funding is usually for a period of 5 years.

Project status brings some funding with it, but the combined resources of the Division of Ecological and Earth Sciences and the IUGS are limited, the current maximum annual seed money being US$10,000 per project. This looks like relatively modest annual funding but, in practice, most projects succeed in securing additional funds from other sources including national ones, sometimes using their UNESCO status to lever extra-budgetary funds by 5 and sometimes 20 times their seed money budget award.

Laramide_Orogeny .jpgAlthough listed as one of UNESCO's inter-Governmental programmes (with IHP, IOC, MAB and MOST), IGCP is the smallest of the four programmes and is also distinctive in subjecting all of its projects to annual peer-review. In the past, these differences have deterred effective collaboration with other programmes in the UNESCO Science Sector, but in the revised structure that became effective in 2008 (see below), even greater emphasis is now placed on the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Past practice has been for the Scientific Board to approve projects and indicate the level of seed funding to be awarded in February each year, but it is important to recognise that final budgets in UNESCO are often not confirmed until June, so that transfer of funds to project leaders may be delayed until late summer.

2. UK participation in the IGCP

UK Earth scientists have been heavily involved in the IGCP since its inception. The UK provided the first Chairman of the Scientific Board in 1972, and UK Earth scientists have chaired the IGCP Scientific Board for 11 of its 36 years. The UK has rarely been outside of the top three IGCP participating nations.

IGCP annual meetings, held in developing countries whenever possible, have a strong local impact, especially by way of the characteristic workshop-scale sessions frequently included in annual events. This has made the IGCP one of UNESCO's most cost-effective, high-involvement science programmes.

The UK National Committee for the IGCP is the External Relations Committee (ERC) of the Geological Society. The ERC administers a Travel Fund designed to help individual UK project leaders and participants to organise and attend IGCP workshops and business meetings. This procedure exists in many of the IGCP’s ca. 150 participating nations, thus adding national funds to the seed money provided by UNESCO-IUGS.

3. The revised structure of the IGCP


In 2007, co-sponsors UNESCO and IUGS introduced a new structure for the IGCP. Its former 20-member IGCP Scientific Board was replaced by two bodies.

First, the new Scientific Board is smaller in size, consisting of the leaders of the five newly-introduced broad research themes plus a representative of the IGCP Secretariat and a small number of IUGS and UNESCO representatives (see below). The second body is a group of up to 50 virtual Board members. The prime role of the Scientific Board is to assess all new project proposals as well as assessing the performance of all projects in process, as set out in the annual reports provided by the project leadership.

With effect from 2008, the IGCP Bureau and its Scientific Board introduced a new guideline framework for project proposals. This consists of three categories:

  • Project topics of particular interest to the IGCP,
  • Project topics defined annually by UNESCO, IUGS and the IGCP Scientific Board as being particularly timely
  • Other project topics in both fundamental and applied geosciences.
At the same time, the maximum number of projects to be approved in any one year has been reduced to 5, thus trimming the number of projects running at any one time from the long-term average of 8 -10. Given the retention of the 5-year ‘life’ for most projects, the effect is that the total number of active projects will progressively decline from 40 – 50 to 20 – 25.

While these changes might be seen as a contraction in the programme, the number of project proposals received by the IGCP Scientific Board in 2008 and 2009 has doubled in comparison with a long period of steady decline in proposal submissions prior to introduction of the new structure. In the longer term, this is expected to result in the emergence of project proposals of broader scope and societally-recognised relevance than formerly, involving greater numbers of both co-leaders and participants in projects that, while fewer in number, will tackle problems of major global concern.

All five topics listed as of particular interest to the IGCP (Geoscience of the Water Cycle; Geohazards: Mitigating the Risks; Earth Resources: Sustaining our Society; Global Change and Evolution of Life: Evidence from the geological record; The Deep Earth: How it controls our environment) have considerable synergistic potential.

4. Bases of IGCP’s longevity and success

Hurricane_honduras_resized.jpgIGCP has a remarkable track record of successful projects over the past 36 years. The keys to this success are many but include:
  • The responsive mode in which projects arise from a widely-felt need for collaboration between scientists in different countries, a characteristic that dates back to the earliest days of the IGCP.
  • The genuinely international collaboration within IGCP between scientists from developing and developed worlds.
  • The way in which the ‘seed money’ level of funding available from UNESCO-IUGS has been used to leverage much larger, ‘extra budgetary’ funds from IGCP partner nations and organisations, and hence to develop continuing collaboration over the years.
  • The energy, enthusiasm and flexibility of both co-leaders and participating Earth scientists from around the world.
These and other strengths of this relatively small Programme have attracted praise for its effectiveness and its use as a model for new programmes such as UNESCO’s International Basic Sciences Programme.

In due course, the new IGCP structure’s greater clarity concerning its priority areas of activity and the establishing of a set of broad scientific themes should encourage larger size multinational projects designed to address a broad range of global problems.

5. In conclusion

The International Geoscience Programme (IGCP) has an enviable record of promoting international collaboration within the Earth sciences, and especially in the sharing of experience of good practice in Earth science applied to the needs of society across the spectrum from developed to developing worlds. The modifications made to IGCP’s priorities as embodied in its newly introduced structure are timely and, if flexibly applied and institutional support is sustained, should contribute to the interdisciplinary strategies demanded by many twenty first century global problems.

Taking into account the priorities listed in the GSL Council’s 10-year strategy document, it is expected that the Society will continue to administer and support the IGCP in the United Kingdom and will observe with interest the programme’s development and adaptation in the years immediately ahead.

Edward Derbyshire
8 June 2009