Geoscience and Sustainable Development

JoelGill Guest Post by Dr. Joel C. Gill

Executive Director, Geology for Global Development

Joel is an interdisciplinary geoscientist, integrating natural and social science methods to address issues relating to sustainable development and disaster risk reduction (DRR). Joel has a keen interest in improving the application of geology to international development, founding the charity “Geology for Global Development” in 2011. He has organised conferences, events and workshops on geoscience and sustainable development in the UK, Guatemala, India, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa.

The agreement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 reflects ‘a global consensus that business as usual is no option any longer, that changing the development trajectory is necessary’ (Spangenberg, 2016, p.1). The 17 SDGs and their 169 targets will be at the forefront of national and international policy discourse for the next 15 years. Collectively they aim to eradicate global poverty, end unsustainable consumption patterns, and facilitate sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development, and environmental protection.

The SDGs, together with various thematic frameworks (e.g., Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, Paris Agreement, New Urban Agenda), all relate to the interaction of human activities with the natural environment. The ‘planet’ is a central pillar of sustainable development, alongside people and prosperity. Advances in science and technology, including geoscience (the study of the Earth), are therefore central to each framework. For example, managing natural resources, characterising natural hazards, or modelling future climate all require multiscale (spatial and temporal) understanding of Earth materials and/or processes. This requirement for geoscience input presents an opportunity for the geoscience community. Scientific business as usual, however, will not be sufficient, with changes to geoscience practice required for successful engagement (Lubchenco et al., 2015).

Geoscience and the SDGs

The environmental focus of the SDGs means geoscience is essential to their success. The matrix below (from Gill, 2017) illustrates the role of geoscience in the 17 SDGs. The matrix was populated by analysing the SDG sub-goals and targets, identifying links between SDG requirements and geoscience. Interconnections between many SDGs results in this approach giving a conservative estimate of the true impact of geoscience interventions. For example, goals on education (SDG 4) and gender equality (SDG 5) do not specifically refer to access to water/sanitation (SDG 6), but increased access to water/sanitation can support both. This matrix shows a role for geoscience within all 17 of the SDGs.


Contributions will be required from all sectors and sub-disciplines of geoscience, including those working in research, industry, the public sector and civil society. Examples of geoscience activities helping to deliver the SDGs include research projects, industry engagement, and civil society activities. Gill and Bullough (2017) listed examples of diverse activities geoscientists are undertaking that support the delivery of the SDGs.

Improving Geoscience Engagement in Sustainable Development

Engagement by geoscientists must be effective, culturally appropriate, and sustainable. Poor quality engagement (e.g., weak understanding of the social context of a project, or limited dialogue with stakeholders) can hinder development progress, may detrimentally affect a project, and does not serve society well. Effective engagement is rooted in understanding the science-policy-practice interface. This includes, for example, determining the information needs of stakeholders (e.g., policy makers, community groups, development NGOs), how they will use this information, and how best to present it to support policymakers. This requires the ability to build positive partnerships between geoscientists and diverse stakeholders, with engagement prioritised early in the research process. Increased dialogue, critical to our contributions being relevant, may also require the geoscience community to invest in additional and complementary skills. The geoscience community readily embraces advances in technology, informatics, and other physical sciences to advance their science. In contrast, whereas cultural and ethical understanding, cross-disciplinary communication, and social science research approaches can also support effective engagement and enhance our science, they are rarely included in a geoscientist’s education.

Examples of Engagement

As outlined above, geoscientists can contribute to many of the Sustainable Development Goals. If this is done in the right way (valuing dialogue, positive collaboration, and understanding the social context), it can result in long lasting, positive development impact that serves society well. This approach is embedded into the British Geological Survey (BGS) ‘Official Development Assistance’ programme – Geoscience for Sustainable Futures.


The BGS have decades of international experience, working in partnership with diverse organisations to help countries apply science to their own development needs. From 2016–2020, BGS have increased the proportion of its research budget spent on Official Development Assistance (ODA). The BGS are working on three interlinked research platforms (RPs): integrated resource management in Eastern Africa (RP1), resilient Asian cities (RP2), and global geological risk (RP3). In each RP, the BGS will work with overseas partners to understand their specific development needs, and then (via workshops, such as the one in Kenya in the above image) co-design and deliver research, informatics and outreach activities to address these. Multiple approaches using concepts of resource corridors, catchments and citizen science will drive integrated science. A desired legacy of this work will be the nurturing of new multinational, multi-disciplinary networks of researchers in the Global South. As this work progresses, further information (e.g., reports, articles) will be posted on the BGS project web pages.

Looking to the Future

Geology for Global Development (GfGD) is a registered charity, working to champion the role of geoscience in sustainable development and reshape the geology community to help deliver the SDGs. Last year, GfGD published a 5-year strategy based around this mission. Their long-term vision is to see:

  • Every geologist equipped with the skills and understanding they need to make a positive contribution to sustainable development;
  • A geology community actively engaged in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of international development activities; and
  • A world where organisations, governments and individuals have access to and an understanding of the geoscience required to ensure sustainable development.

Over the next 5-years, GfGD will be expanding their work – with opportunities for geoscientists at all stages of their careers, and working across all sectors to get involved. Follow this work on the GfGD website and social media. Your engagement can help to build an engaged and equipped discipline, serving society by ensuring access to the geological science required to deliver the SDGs, and ensure an enhanced and sustainable future for communities around the world.


This guest post is based on material originally published in (i) Gill and Bullough (2017) Geoscience Engagement in Global Development Frameworks, Annals of Geophysics, 60(7) (available here), and (ii) Gill and Smith (2017), Sustainable Futures, Geoscientist, (June 2017) (available here).

Seabed Habitats blog would like to cordially thank Dr Joel Gill for writing this blog post and informing us of this initiative within the geoscience community towards achieving sustainable development.

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