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EGU Great Debates Set the Trend

Soon after its creation in 2002, EGU launched two innovations. The first was the policy that all EGU publications should be open access, and the second was the inauguration of the Great Debates in the Geosciences at the EGU annual General Assembly. The idea was to find an alternative to normal meeting fare – a talk of 15 minutes, the time totally consumed by the speaker leaving no opportunity for questions or discussion. The new format was based loosely on Oxford Union debates, with two teams debating controversial topics, each defending an opposing point of view. In this way informed experts were able to explain and inform the audience on important topics in a lively and entertaining way.

The idea has worked extremely well. The first Great Debates in the Geosciences were held at the EGU General Assembly in 2005 and since then debates have had a regular place in the programme.

The first debates were on two geoscientific topics: Flood Volcanism is the Main Cause of Mass Extinctions and Oxygenic photosynthesis appeared on Earth at least 3.8Ga ago.  Very quickly, however, the themes evolved to topics of social or economic interest. Some were rather frivolous We must curtail the use of Artificial Snow; others more weighty The Carbon Footprint of EGU is Bigger than Necessary. Proponents for the latter motion, true to their convictions, took the 15-hour train trip from their British university to the general assembly in Vienna. Others foresaw future developments: in 2006 two teams debated whether In 30 years petroleum will have become a little-used energy source.

The quality of debate varied. Some were rather flat because the team members were unfamiliar with the debate concept and were reluctant to defend unflinchingly their team's position. One of the best debates ensued when a staunch advocate of geoengineering was told on his arrival in Vienna that a member of the opposing team was unable to make it, and having changed sides, argued convincingly and enthusiastically against the motion that Geo-engineering should be part of our climate mitigation portfolio.  Another very successful event was the debate on Shale Gas: to frack or not to frack? in 2013. A conference hall seating 500 people was filled to overflowing and several hundred people followed the debate on live streaming. The audience was strongly divided, many following the arguments of a Greenpeace activist, others more convinced by the opinions expressed by the opposing team.

The concept launched by EGU has now taken off and in the past two years, several other geoscience unions have successfully adopted the EGU model. Two Great Debates co-sponsored by EGU were held at the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting on topics such as Sustainable development in the Arctic. The Japanese Geosciences Union will soon launch its own series. Similar topics will be treated at the forthcoming EGU assembly with the topic rephrased as the motion Sustainable Development is Impossible in the Arctic. Another debate will return to the original big scientific question model and two teams will debate the purely scientific motion that Plate Tectonics started in the PaleoArchean. Full details of this year’s debates are to be found in the EGU 2016 programme and videos of many earlier debates are available on the EGU website.

We hope this tradition will live on as one of the mainstays of our professional geoscience meetings across the globe and we are pleased to have kicked this particular ball into the Unions playing fields.

Nicholas Arndt, EGU Outreach Committee Chair
John Ludden, EGU President 2005–2007

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