Professionalism In the Public Arena

A APG is a scientific and professional association. This fact is articulated in Article II of our constitution, where two of the seven purposes of our Association are:

  • To inspire and maintain a high standard of professional conduct on the part of its members.
  • To provide the public with means to recognize adequately trained and professionally responsible geologists.

We spend a lot of time talking about professionalism at AAPG. But as I sit and listen to these conversations, I find myself wondering what the term actually means. It’s easy to talk about professionalism in the abstract. And there are behaviors that are unprofessional according to anyone’s standards. But what does professionalism look like on a day-to-day basis?

Two separate incidents late last year have put this on my mind.

In October a judge in Italy convicted a group of six prominent seismologists and a government official of manslaughter. Manslaughter is defined as the “unlawful killing of a human being without express or implied malice.”

The population of the Italian city of L’Aquila was concerned in 2009 about the swarms of tremors they were feeling. According to news reports, public concern was being fueled by predictions of a citizen who claimed the tremors were precursor to a major earthquake. In fact, he allegedly provided a precise prediction of when and where the earthquake was to occur.

In response, a group of experts, accompanied by government officials, came to L’Aquila on March 31, 2009, to assuage public concern.

Nature reports that Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy director of the Civil Protection Department, went on television and said, “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy.”

One week later, on April 6, 2009, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit L’Aquila and 309 people lost their lives.

The second incident was the November announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice that three men who worked for BP at the time of the Macondo blowout faced criminal indictments.

Two of the men each face 11 counts of seaman’s manslaughter, 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of a Clean Water Act violation. The allegation is that they misread the safety information they received aboard the Deepwater Horizon, which ultimately resulted in the blowout.

The third was indicted for obstructing Congress and lying to law enforcement officials for statements made about the volumes of oil being discharged into the Gulf of Mexico from the blowout.

Here we have two recent incidents where geoscience or energy professionals now face uncertain and potentially devastated futures as a result of their professional practice.

I am not trying here to evaluate or opine on the merits of these cases. Rather, I see them as a wake up call to each of us as we engage on a daily basis as professional geoscientists.


I’m concerned about this, because practicing our profession, engaging with the public and connecting our science to societal needs is vitally important. Being involved in public engagement is something that I have spent a good part of my career doing and it is something that I have encouraged you to do.

But there are three realities that we need to bear in mind:

Finding and producing oil and natural gas is serious business. This is why safety is emphasized throughout our industry. Whether on the rig floor or in the boardroom, acting as a professional means consistently being at our best.

But think about what that means for you on a daily basis: Are you focused? Are you prepared? Are you rested?

People have a poor understanding of risk. We all fall into that category to an extent. But as scientists we’ve at least had some training in statistics and risk analysis. This is knowledge that most people do not have. But they do have the capacity to understand given the proper explanation.

Beware of the temptation to gravitate to the sound-bite explanations loved by pundits and headline writers.

We must manage the risk in our professional lives. It’s there. But we still have to drill wells; we still have to make business decisions; we still have to engage with our co-workers and the public.

In terms of how you engage with your world, are you making conscious choices to manage the risks you face?

The Black Swans are out there – those events and circumstances you and I cannot foresee that could dramatically impact our lives. But we can be as equipped as possible to deal with them by being at our best, giving complete and thorough answers and avoiding sound bites, and managing our own professional risks.

It is our words and actions, moment-by-moment, that determine whether we are meeting the standards we’ve set for ourselves as AAPG members.

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Director's Corner

Director's Corner - David Curtiss

David Curtiss is an AAPG member and was named AAPG Executive Director in August 2011. He was previously Director of the AAPG GEO-DC Office in Washington D.C.

The Director's Corner covers Association news and industry events from the worldview perspective of the AAPG Executive Director.

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