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Bruce Yardley appointed Chief Geologist

Bruce Yardley (Leeds University) has been appointed Chief Geologist by The Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (RWMD) of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Chartership news

Chartership Officer Bill Gaskarth reports on a projected new logo for use by CGeols, advice on applications and company training schemes

Climate Change Statement Addendum

The Society has published an addendum to 'Climate Change: Evidence from the Geological Record' (November 2010) taking account of new research

Cracking up in Lincolnshire

Oliver Pritchard, Stephen Hallett, and Timothy Farewell consider the role of soil science in maintaining the British 'evolved road'

Critical metals

Kathryn Goodenough* on a Society-sponsored hunt for the rare metals that underpin new technologies

Déja vu all over again

As Nina Morgan Discovers, the debate over HS2 is nothing new...

Done proud

Ted Nield hails the new refurbished Council Room as evidence that the Society is growing up

Earth Science Week 2014

Fellows - renew, vote for Council, and volunteer for Earth Science Week 2014!  Also - who is honoured in the Society's Awards and Medals 2014.

Fookes celebrated

Peter Fookes (Imperial College, London) celebrated at Society event in honour of Engineering Group Working Parties and their reports

Geology - poor relation?

When are University Earth Science departments going to shed their outmoded obsession with maths, physics and chemistry?

Nancy Tupholme

Nancy Tupholme, Librarian of the Society and the Royal Society, has died, reports Wendy Cawthorne.

Power, splendour and high camp

Ted Nield reviews the refurbishment of the Council Room, Burlington House

The Sir Archibald Geikie Archive at Haslemere Educational Museum

You can help the Haslemere Educational Museum to identify subjects in Sir Archibald Geikie's amazing field notebook sketches, writes John Betterton.

Top bananas

Who are the top 100 UK practising scientists?  The Science Council knows...

Micropalaeontology Under Threat!

Haydon Bailey (*/***) BSc PhD CGeol FGS & Bob Wynn Jones (**/***) BSc PhD FGS explore the real nature of an expertise crisis in the making

Geoscientist Online Special May 2012

During the 1980’s the UK was a world leader in the training of micropalaeontologists. With five universities (Aberystwyth, Hull, Sheffield, Southampton and UCL) running Masters courses in the subject and other centres of excellence such as Leicester, Plymouth and Dublin turning out quality PhD’s, employers in academia and industry were able to cream off new staff. These went on to become the backbone of the science and are still there, actively working and providing the core of the stratigraphic micropalaeontologists occupied in numerous areas of research and hydrocarbon exploration and production.

Commercial biostratigraphy at this time also witnessed fresh demands with the advent of horizontal well drilling and the use of micropalaeontology as a principal geosteering technique. Summarised briefly, detailed biostratigraphic studies of oil field reservoir sections of results in the development of high resolution zonation schemes. These can be used to help maintain the wellpath within the best quality reservoir units (sweet spots) on the field. Instead of numerous vertical wells passing through a 30 to 50 metre reservoir section, we have horizontal wells maintained for several kilometres within or close to, high quality reservoir. The increased production yield is immense.

This technique is demanding on man time; two biostratigraphers, work back to back twelve hour shifts, throughout the reservoir drilling, which may take several weeks. In the early 1990’s, there was a surfeit of experienced micropalaeontologists ready to take on this task having come through a rigorous university education followed by intense, on the job commercial training.

1989 saw two coincidental events which were to have a serious impact on this state of affairs. Firstly there was one of the cyclical oil price drops we are aware of, but frequently unable to predict. The major oil companies revised their policy of employing numerous micropalaeontologists and downsized these expensive departments. Staff left to form consultancies and those which rode out this difficult period (e.g. Stratadata, Neftex, Geostrat) are still active in the hydrocarbon industry. The downturn nevertheless hit the established consultancies hard with some, like Paleoservices, going into receivership.

The second blow to micropalaeontology in 1989 was the Oxburgh review of Earth Science teaching in UK universities. This resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of universities teaching geology and many departments were closed, including those teaching micropalaeontology and palynology Masters courses at Hull and Sheffield. The department at Aberystwyth continued for a short while, but their Masters course in Micropalaeontology closed in the early 1990’s, along with that at Southampton. Only the UCL Masters course continued, albeit with low student numbers, reflecting the reduced numbers of geologists being trained as a whole. This course struggled on until it was summarily closed in 2008.

The closure of the UCL course ended over 40 years of high quality post-graduate micropalaeontology teaching in the U.K. Research centres still existed and doctoral research continues at a reduced level, but this cannot supply the number of Micropalaeontology graduates required by the commercial sector which, if anything, is utilising wellsite biostratigraphers in increasing numbers.

In the early 1990s there was a surplus of well trained industrial micropalaeontologists, combining those employed by existing biostratigraphic consultancies with the new arrivals resulting from the downsizing of the majors. This was to the benefit of the hydrocarbon industry from two perspectives. A competitive market place meant that they were able to draw on individuals who had ever increasing experience which could be applied to reservoir interpretations, with little increase in costs. Secondly, when the majors needed to employ biostratigraphers on their full time staff, they had a pool of experienced consultants from which willing bodies could be tempted by the apparent stability of large company infrastructure with benefits unavailable in small consultancies.

This is where mathematics and the ageing process take over. Those consultants who trained during the boom years of the late 1970s and 1980s are beginning to consider calling a halt to wellsite activities and will take retirement during the next five to ten years. This wouldn’t be a problem if industry was showing signs of finding an alternative to wellsite biostratigraphy for geosteering or if there were a stream of new post-graduates. However, there is no sign of the former, if anything just the opposite and the latter (training schools) no longer exist.

Figure 1 Figure one (above) presents a rapid tally of biostratigraphers currently active in the main UK consultancies and major oil companies with their age groups. Figure 2 (below) presents the same graph ten years on. It is easy to see the demographic time bomb with the largest constituent group in their 50’s. In ten years time most of these will have retired and of those who haven’t, the majority will have decided that working in the middle of the North Sea is a younger person’s occupation. The graph illustrates well the gap spanning those in their 30’s and 40’s with an interesting mini-bulge for those currently in their 20’s. Many of this last group are the result of consultancies recently scouring European universities for anyone who has any form of training in any aspect of micropalaeontology.

Figure 2 The Micropalaeontology Society was the first to recognise that this crisis existed and three years ago, following the closure of the UCL course, set about doing something about it. An Educational Trust Fund for the training of micropalaeontologists was established as a registered charity and the society is now bringing the need to train micropalaeontologists to the attention of both the industry which uses them daily and the broader geological community (please see letter attached). The Trust also has the brief to QA and accredit MSc and PhD training and to financially assist students on such courses. It can also provide tacit support to academic units and courses by the provision of project materials to students; these might include well samples and data, project supervision and course teaching by experienced staff.

If the hydrocarbon industry considered the value added by wellsite biostratigraphers then it might understand the need to train more. It’s been estimated1 that biosteering has brought benefits of savings of tens of millions of dollars in drilling wells, additions of tens of millions of barrels of reserves, and additions of tens of thousands of barrels per day of production (sustainable throughout field life). It has added value running into hundreds of millions of dollars. A number of contributing procedures besides wellsite biostratigraphy make up the geosteering process which is regarded as providing up to 30% additional yield on a production well2. A more conservative value of 10% could be attributed to wellsite biostratigraphy. Each horizontal well might have a life span of 5 to 10 years, during which time it could be producing at several thousand barrels of oil per day at a cost per barrel ranging between $80 and $115. It doesn’t take long to deduce that it’s worth having a few well trained biostratigraphers available.

The one glimmer on the horizon is that the concern generated by the Micropalaeontological Society has already resulted in the launch of a new Masters course in Applied and Petroleum Micropalaeontology at the University of Birmingham. The first students should arrive for this course in September, 2012. This course needs all the support it can get as it’s essential that it succeeds and a steady flow of graduate Micropalaeontologists is generated. So far the petroleum industry is showing a reluctance to finance this new course and the Micropalaeontological Society in its efforts to provide students with the necessary assistance to pay for ever rising tuition fees, etc.

There is an opportunity to defuse the demographic time bomb which will cause the drop in the numbers of biostratigraphers available to industry and, the other elephant in the room, climate change research. Perhaps in 5 to 10 years it won’t matter and the advent of alternative methods will mean that we won’t need micropalaeontologists any more; we were told that in the 1970’s and it was proved wrong then. Currently you can still call on a biostratigrapher to provide you with a relatively cheap and simple method of knowing what you’re drilling through. Unfortunately, there might not be one there in five to ten years time.


  1. Jones, R. W., Lowe, S., Milner, P. et al., 2005. The Role and Value of “Biosteering” in Hydrocarbon Reservoir Exploitation. Pp. 339-55, in Koutsoukos, E.A.M. (ed.): Applied Stratigraphy. Springer.
  2. Jones, R.W., 2011. Applications of Palaeontology – Techniques and Case Studies. Cambridge University Press.

*Network Stratigraphic Consulting Ltd., Harvest House, Cranborne Road, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, EN6 3JF

** BG Group plc, 100 Thames Valley Park, Reading, Berkshire, RG6 1PT

*** The Micropalaeontological Society Educational Trust Fund