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Geoscience and the downturn


The geosciences need to position themselves carefully to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the current economic climate, says Chris Leake*.

Geoscientist 21.09 October 2011

No one reading this article, whether working in the consultancy, industry, regulatory or academic fields, will need reminding how badly geosciences have been hit by the economic downturn. However, adverse effects of the recession have been inconsistent, both sectorally and geographically. A survey of these effects is useful for identifying where opportunities for growth exist; it could indeed be argued that the economic downturn has acted as a crude indicator of the perceived value of various geoscience disciplines.

Within the UK, pressure on geosciences has been acute, thanks to a sharp decline in both private and public development. This has led to significant economic uncertainty and a consequent decrease in commissioning of geoscientific work. These factors acted rapidly, altering a long-established status quo, where a high reliance on development and regulatory compliance work had become the norm. It is highly unlikely that the pre-existing situation will re-establish itself soon. Individuals and companies will have to adapt to a greatly changed working environment.

Conversely, in some sectors and geographical areas growth has been significant. In Australia, for example, it has been particularly strong. Similarly, innovative exploitation of unconventional sources of fossil fuels and the still immature renewable energy markets promise significant future growth. These observations indicate clearly that if effort is concentrated where there are ‘real’ (economically or environmentally driven) needs, considerable opportunities still exist.

Solving many of the challenges facing the world involve geoscience. Whether it be locating new energy resources (geothermal, oil, coal, tidal), water supply, food security, sea-level change or supply of raw materials – all are dependent to greater or lesser extent upon our subject. So why do the geosciences continue to have such a low profile in the media and public conscience? The latter has significant repercussions for the industry as it influences funding, consultancy fee rates and the overall prominence of the sector. Part of the answer may be that throughout the expansion of the field in recent times geosciences have too often been seen primarily as a burdensome expense rather than being innovative, able to add significant value or solve real problems.

To enable the many opportunities that exist in geoscience today to be exploited fully requires a sea-change in attitudes, particularly in the way in which the industry views and promotes itself. The practical application of the vast array of techniques now available to geoscientists must surely be the way forward. Geoscientists need to become far more dynamic, innovative and proactive rather than principally reactive, as has too often been the case in the past. We also need to develop lateral thinking about sources and methods of funding. These are exhilarating challenges that must now be embraced enthusiastically, with creativity and vision to ensure the future development and well-being of the geosciences. In the future, the response of our industry to the economic downturn may be seen as a significant turning point and one from which it emerged re-energised and with a clear sense of purpose.

* Chris Leake is founder and Managing Director of Hafren Water Limited, water management consultants.