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NERC Stakeholder Consultation: NERC Strategy 2013

The Natural Environment Research Council has launched a consultation on their 2013 draft strategy. The letter inviting the Geological Society to respond is available here and our response can be seen below.

 Submitted 22 July 2013

  1. The Geological Society is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience, with more than 10,500 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-specialist audiences. It organises research conferences and public information meetings, and is a globally significant not-for-profit geoscience publisher producing about 11,000 pages of peer reviewed content annually.
  2. We welcome NERC’s draft strategy, and are grateful for the opportunity to comment on it. The document identifies clear and coherent themes, consistent with economic and societal well-being, and is well written for a wide audience.
  3. The emphasis on working in partnership is especially welcome. The Geological Society is currently developing its Science Strategy, and we would be happy to share a draft of this with NERC in the near future. There are strong synergies between our Science Strategy and NERC’s strategy. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss with you how we can build a stronger relationship with NERC, to help in delivering its strategy and to engage our Fellowship in doing so.
  4. We are pleased to see that NERC wishes to develop partnerships with industry. Most of our members work in industry, in sectors which NERC has identified as priorities, so we are well placed to assist in brokering potential partnerships:
    • We estimate that about 4,000 Fellows (47% of those in employment) work in areas of applied engineering geology, environmental geoscience and hydrogeology, which underpin urban development and inter-urban infrastructure, including water supply, building construction, civil engineering projects (roads, railways, power transmission lines, pipelines, etc), remediation of contaminated land and management of geological hazards.
    • About 2,000 Fellows (24% of those in employment) work in the petroleum industry.
    • About 500 (6% of those in employment) work in mining and quarrying.
  5. We welcome the more coherent focus on provision of resources, including energy, water and minerals, than in previous NERC strategy documents. The document also identifies the interconnectedness of resource cycles, and the need to manage these sustainably. Taking a holistic view of how we use the geosphere, and the services we derive from it, is vital to achieving this aim. This is hinted at in the final paragraph of page 7, which refers to the potential use of the geosphere to deliver geothermal energy and CCS. It would be beneficial to state this need more explicitly, and to recognise the importance of research to underpin management of wastes besides CO2, especially of radioactive waste, where NERC scientists will play a key role over the coming decades.
  6. NERC’s draft strategy rightly recognises the importance of postgraduate training for the supply of skilled personnel to industry, and to knowledge transfer. It emphasises NERC support for PhD training. This not only underpins ‘discovery science’, but also provides certain prospective employers with a relatively small stream of highly skilled and motivated scientists who (with appropriate training) can usually transfer their skills and enthusiasm into emerging fields, largely irrespective of the specific focus of their PhD. However, in many of the areas of industry which NERC’s research is intended to support, and with which it wishes to build partnerships, employers seek to recruit much larger numbers of graduates of taught applied MSc programmes in fields such as hydrogeology, engineering geology and petroleum geology. In many sectors, this is the default entry requirement to the profession, and the next stage in professional formation beyond an MSc is Chartership rather than a research qualification. The movement of MSc graduates into industry is important in building the capacity in these industries to absorb NERC research, as well as having a knowledge transfer function in its own right. With the withdrawal of NERC funding for MSc studentships, coinciding with a number of other pressures, taught applied MSc programmes have faced a severe downturn in student numbers. Some have already closed and many more may yet do so. There is concern in industry at the lasting damage this is expected to have on the skills base in some sectors. We recognise that NERC does not see a role for itself in training at MSc level, but we remain keen to discuss with NERC how this training gap can be filled, as the present situation (which largely relies on self-financing) may be unsustainable.
  7. We note the vital role of BGS and NERC’s other research centres in maintaining and capitalising on the UK’s national capability in geoscience. The Geological Society greatly values its strong relationship with the BGS, many of whose scientists number among our Fellowship, and is pleased to see key areas of BGS’s work given such prominence in the strategy. It is essential that whatever future ownership and governance arrangements are arrived at do not disrupt this work, and provide a robust basis for it to flourish. We will be responding to the present NERC consultation on these arrangements.