It is with great pleasure that I write my first editorial for The Geographical Journal– one of the world's oldest and most established publishing outlets in the discipline of Geography. It is truly humbling to gaze down a list of past editors of this journal, including the former director and secretary of the RGS, Sir Laurence Kirwan and the current director, Rita Gardner. Having taken over from the last editor, John Briggs, the first thing I wish to record is my thanks to John for his support and encouragement. It is always difficult following on from someone who has done a great deal to promote and encourage new scholarship, especially from the global South. John's commitment to seeking out contributors from around the world deserves special recognition. The editorial board associated with John's tenure as editor also deserve acknowledgement.

The journal's focus, over the next 5 years, is to change somewhat. While recognising the tremendous achievements of recent times in the specific area of development and environment, my brief as editor is to focus our attention more explicitly on informing public debate and policy relevance. This is therefore an opportunity not only to consolidate the environment–development interface but also enhance the range of work being published. One of John's final acts as editor was to steer into production a special section on the ‘new carbon economy’, which is opportune and timely given the Copenhagen summit on climate change in December 2009. This will appear in the June issue of 2010. We will also look to attract further comment and reflection online. So the scene has been nicely set for broadening the scope of the journal.

In invoking these terms, I am keen to attract papers to the Geographical Journal that will be characterised by a number of qualities – a readiness to take on substantive issues dominating public debate, including aging, health, terrorism, energy security, environmental risk and sustainability. An enthusiasm to develop an accessible and engaging style of writing that will maximise readership. A willingness to take scholarly risks; in other words, authors should feel free to make pronouncements and even to speculate on possible outcomes and possibilities. I would like to receive and edit contributions that really do not pull their ‘geographical punches’. In short, I want authors and papers to make a difference and thus be the kinds of papers that will be taken up by media organisations, think tanks, non-governmental organisations and government and international agencies.

There are a number of good reasons why this might be both necessary and opportune. First, it is clear that a new generation of geographers are grappling with this subject matter and engaging in a wealth of activities designed to promote the discipline of geography to a variety of audiences. Geographers are making their presence felt in a multitude of areas including, as noted above, climate change, development, environmental management, demography, migration and immigration, terrorism, tourism and urban politics. Danny Dorling at the University of Sheffield is just one example of someone who has intervened decisively on the persistence of socio-economic inequality in the UK and used a variety of textual and visual mechanisms including cartography.

This kind of work demonstrates well that it is possible to comment on public affairs without compromising one's scholarly independence and critical faculties. To that end, I concur with the recent statement by Craig Calhoun (2009), the President of the Social Science Research Council (USA) who noted that:

Addressing public issues does not mean merely bringing social science to already clearly formulated problems. It means analyzing why problems are posed in particular ways and what the implications are. It means asking whether certain ways of stating the issues make it harder to find resolutions. It means locating blind spots and questioning whether taken-for-granted appearances are as real or transparent as they seem. This is one of the ways in which situating contemporary issues and proposed solutions in comparative and historical contexts is vital. Although critical theory has alas been allowed to become a heavily academic field, the tasks of critique are not of merely academic significance but rather of considerable public import.

The one thing I would change is that one could add the physical sciences (including physical and environmental geography) and the humanities to his opening sentence.

Second, without compromising the academic independence of the journal, the focus on policy relevance and public engagement is intended to complement the active work that the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) does with regard to public engagement and policy. If you glance at the Society's website (http://www.rgs.org) you will quickly see that the range of activity is truly impressive – from developing web resources for schools to maintaining a wide ranging lecture series around the UK, and a new public discussion series on issues affecting us all. From my point of view, the Society has also developed impressive links, and reputation, with policymakers and user communities within the UK and beyond. This is clearly important not least because, in the UK context, the current government has selected so called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) subjects for more favourable funding settlements. This trend is being reproduced in other areas of the world. As geographers, therefore, we need to be willing to defend our academic corner and demonstrate our (critical) relevance and significance.

Third, the focus on public engagement and policy relevance should offer further opportunities for physical and environmental geographers to publish in the journal. As someone who works on the Polar Regions, I am extremely comfortable with the notion of human and physical geographers working in tandem on issues of common concern – for example thinning sea ice in the Arctic and the implications that might follow in terms of a more accessible region in terms of shipping lanes, resource exploitation and ownership disputes. I would like to see physical geographers writing inter alia on climate change, environmental vulnerabilities, and physical landscapes and processes such as severe and unpredictable weather. All have direct relevance for how we manage (or not as the case may be) human–environmental relations. One of the tasks facing other disciplinary journals including Transactions is persuading more physical geographers to contribute rather than publish their work in more specialist domains. My challenge to this community is simple – publish a different kind of paper, which spells out the wider significance of your research.

Finally, a whole series of national and international initiatives will ensure that geography's disciplinary relevance and impact will be subject to further formal assessment and evaluation. For example, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) (http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Research/ref/) will guide the behaviour of departments and universities throughout the UK. While the journal will remain open to all kinds of contributions from around the world, the REF has brought to the fore discussions about the ‘impact’ of scholarship. As the Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE) note, attention will be given to the manner in which researchers can prove ‘demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life’. Even if we are mindful of simply accepting government funding-driven agendas, it is an opportunity for academics within and beyond the UK to reflect on how our scholarly outputs do influence and inform public life.

To help implement this vision for the journal, a new editorial board, committed to facilitating this new agenda, joins me. They have all pledged to help me review papers quickly and seek out interesting submissions. The editorial board will also have a key role in shaping the book review section, which will, in the near future, begin to be more thematic in its coverage. The journal will also develop an online presence and to that end I am delighted that Alasdair Pinkerton will have the responsibility for organising online innovations. This will include a ‘GJ interview’ with a select number of authors for the purpose of providing readers with a quick overview of their research and why it matters. Readers and potential authors are most welcome to contact Alasdair directly (a.d.pinkerton@rhul.ac.uk) to discuss possibilities. We might, for instance, also encourage the author and referees to debate their views, at the same time the journal article in question is published on the journal website.

Looking ahead, we already have a very timely special section on the low carbon economy for the second issue of 2010. As a journal, I would like to see one special issue published per year so readers are again encouraged to contact me to discuss their ideas. We would be flexible on the one per year rule, however, if the topic's importance and timeliness indicated that a particular publication date mattered in terms of impact.

I am already indebted to Will Fitzmaurice, Pat Laughton, Fiona McConnell and Amy Swann. With their help and support in terms of editing and managing the journal, I am confident that we have a wonderful team able and willing to transform the journal and we can put our commitment to publishing the very best pieces to the test. We are also fortunate to enjoy an excellent working relationship with our publisher, Wiley-Blackwell. Emma Smith and her colleagues have been very supportive. Moreover, I also thank Rita Gardner and Catherine Souch for all their encouragement.

Finally, as editor, I am excited at the prospect of learning and engaging with others, especially on topics that are comparatively new to me. I want to reaffirm my commitment to interpreting this mandate in a generous and open manner. As with other editors, I also thank you in advance if you are asked to referee pieces submitted to the journal. Notwithstanding the considerable time-based pressures facing academics, I am still struck by how generous referees can be with their time and thoughts. Stuart Elden, editor of Society and Space, has written cogently on the peer review economy and I very much endorse his comments (Elden 2008).

I look forward to working with you and await your contributions! Together we can evolve the Geographical Journal into the leading place to publish accessible and timely pieces for a variety of audiences.