When I was asked to write the first ECR contribution for this section following Paul Wright, I didn't need to think very hard as to which aspect of sedimentary geology I wanted to address. It's an aspect that I have repeatedly discussed with colleagues and is one of the foundations of our science: field work. The mothers and fathers of our subject built the fundamental knowledge of sedimentology, which still holds true today, by going out into the field, collecting a plethora of observations. These were used to show that the Earth was older than postulated by religion, that the structures and fossils of sedimentary strata can tell us if the rocks we are looking at were originally deposited on land, the shelf, or even in the deeper marine realm, although today we can observe them cropping out in a mountainside for example.
Despite its history the appeal of field work seems to have dwindled over the last decades, or at least that is the perception a lot of field sedimentologist have. It's a topic that has repeatedly come up in discussions, especially concerning undergraduate and postgraduate students, because they hold the future of our discipline in their hands. A quick Twitter poll showed that 46% of people who took it have the experience that appreciation for field work by their students as decreased. The number of votes for the poll were in no way exhaustive, and it should be noted that 22% of votes also indicated that appreciation had increased, but it shows a trend that is worth looking into.
The question is: What are potential reasons for the perceived trend of devaluation of field work?
One obvious reason is the tool kit that is available to sedimentologists nowadays encompasses various other methods besides field work that enable us to study the sedimentary record, including geophysical methods (e.g., seismic), flume experiments, numerical modeling, and machine learning. All of these methods are valid and allow us to study 1) sedimentary succession on different scales than outcrops allow, 2) the processes that formed the deposits we can observe in nature, and 3) prediction of key features like stacking patterns, sediment volume transported, as well as connectivity between sedimentary bodies. Nonetheless, it is important to take a step back at times and question if what we interpret from these named methods conforms to geometries and patterns we can observe in nature. Unfortunately, in recent years the number of studies that exaggerate the detail in which they can reconstruct, for example, seismic successions, some even without any cores to rectify their facies interpretation, have become more common. In other cases, successions have been numerically modeled without any sense of purpose other than for modeling's sake. However, this phenomenon might as well be another symptom of the publish or perish culture that is still perpetuated on all levels despite the effort of a lot of scientists to change the status quo.
Field work is time consuming, and more often than not one has to return to the field several times to collect the proper data to present research outcomes in confidence. Especially for Ph.D. students and ECRs, this fact can be a massive strain, because grants are usually tight and field work can be extremely costly. In addition, the vast amount of time spent in the field, sometimes remotely with only rare or no occasion to contact family and loved ones, makes it extremely hard for people with caring responsibilities to justify doing field work, or even flat-out impossible.
Days in the field can be hard, lonely, and frustrating. Anyone who has been out in the field has probably had the experience of sheer exhaustion that happens close to their breaking point. For some people, this happens after several weeks in a tent with no contact with civilization, and some might be triggered after only several days in an unfamiliar atmosphere, while others are perfectly fine with any adversity they may face. It's something we as a society of sedimentologists need to be aware of, realizing that field work is not the best option for everyone. After all, we do have an extensive toolbox of methods to work on the questions that sedimentary successions pose to us, and we can join forces to work together: field geologists, experimental geologists, geophysicists, modelers, etc.
You might have heard a former professor of yours talking about the good old days when their own lecturer would have spent their whole summer in the field. If you wanted to learn something, you packed up your stuff and followed them around. Luckily, we don't have this practice anymore, as it favored only the rich, privileged students who had no responsibilities at home and would mainly be, let's be honest about it, white men. When I began my studies, it was still largely understood that you had to have at least some money to become a sedimentologists, because we needed to pay for the obligatory field trips that were needed to get our degrees. Obviously, that is not how things are supposed to be.
If you make it to the field, be it as student, a Ph.D. candidate, or later on, there are a lot of other issues, including sexism, sexual misconduct, racism, ableism, and homophobia, that would put anyone off. Add ridiculous working hours up to 16 hours a day to that as well as the bullying of students, and there is really no question as to why field work might not be appreciated. How field work is handled can make or break the willingness of a person to want to take part in it again, can decide if it is one of the best experiences that leads to in depth understanding of sedimentary strata, or can be hell on earth. It's Pandora's box, a taboo to talk about any misconduct for the longest time.
In a scientific climate where we want to stand for equity, diversity, and inclusion, none of these listed points should happen, and we have to strive to be better. Otherwise why are we even surprised that field work has lost the appeal that it used to have?
About the Author: Yvonne T. Spychala received a B.Sc. (2009) and an M.Sc. (2012) in geology from the Ruprecht-Karls–Universität (Heidelberg), Germany. In 2016 she was awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Leeds (UK) for her work on submarine lobes funded by the LOBE2 project. From 2016 to 2019 she has worked on the process sedimentology of deep-marine deposits in the Eurotank Lab at Utrecht University (The Netherlands).