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NERC: Investment priorities for the next Comprehensive Spending Review

The Natural Environment Research Council has launched a Call for Evidence into 'Shaping NERC's Priorities'. Details of this inquiry can be found on the NERC website. The submission produced by the Geological Society can be found below:

Submitted 23 March 2015

Q1  What emerging research and innovation opportunities promise to make the biggest impact on societal challenges?

Finding and using resources sustainably

Global demand for energy, water, food and mineral resources will continue to rise in the coming decades, driven by resource-intensive development and expectations of more equitable distribution of resources as living standards rise. Strategies to reduce consumption and improve recycling and substitution will be insufficient to keep pace with demand. The world will need new sources of minerals, and affordable energy and water for all. Declining rates of discovery of major new resources and decreasing availability of land pose major challenges. In meeting future resource needs, we must drastically reduce carbon emissions, understand and manage other environmental risks and impacts, and secure ‘social licence to operate’. The UK has significant untapped mineral potential, and could play a world-leading role in developing its resources in environmentally and socially acceptable ways on a crowded island.

Evaluation of resources and reserves depends on incomplete and uncertain data. Discovery of new deposits will rely on improved remote sensing and geophysical techniques, and merging, manipulating and interrogating large datasets. Improving efficiency of extraction and processing is an essential element of achieving efficient resource use, complementing efforts to reduce use, recycling and substitution. Exploration for seabed mineral and energy resources and understanding impacts on marine environments are in their early stages. Addressing such issues depends on developing our fundamental understanding of the geosphere and research to drive new technologies (e.g. to improve remote sensing and to reduce low carbon energy costs). 

Resource cycles interlink in complex ways. Co-cycling of resources and use of waste streams from one resource cycle as feedstock for another has significant potential. Significantly reduced or increased energy costs would have a huge impact on the economic viability of mineral deposits. Understanding these dependencies requires the full range of NERC science, as well as interdisciplinary work across areas represented by other research councils.

Natural Hazards

Reducing the global impact (loss of life, human suffering and economic impact) and mitigating risk from hazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami, landslides, extreme weather events and space weather is a huge challenge. Although the UK experiences few dramatic Earth hazards, there is significant economic impact from those such as landslides, swelling and shrinking of clay, sinkhole formation, flooding (including groundwater flooding) and other weather-related hazards, as well as occasional loss of life. The UK is also potentially vulnerable to major tsunami and space weather events.

Interaction between natural and anthropogenic hazards, resulting for instance from resource extraction and use, waste disposal and infrastructure development, is complex and the associated risks are imperfectly understood. Addressing them is an urgent priority so that these risks can be mitigated and their impacts managed. Research is urgently needed to understand what impact global warming and other long-term environmental change may have, not only on extreme weather events, but also on geohazards such as landslides and subsidence.

NERC science also has a vital role to play in improving techniques to recover from the human and environmental effects of natural and anthropogenic hazards, such as flooding and contamination of ground and water.

Sustainable exploitation of the subsurface

The subsurface is a complex, finite and valuable resource. We continue to depend on it for a wide range of resources – raw materials which we extract from the ground, but also water and geothermal energy. Our increasingly urbanised society is now becoming more reliant on using the subsurface for construction, physical infrastructure (e.g. underground networks such as utilities and transport) and for the storage and containment of resources (energy and water) and waste (CO2, radioactive waste, waste heat), in order to support a well-functioning society.

With this development comes increased pressure on subsurface space and resources, and competition for underground development. Any given volume of the ground may be required to perform several different functions, consecutively or concurrently. There may sometimes be competition for underground space between functions which are not readily compatible.

To use and manage the subsurface sustainably requires good understanding of the subsurface and how it will respond, for instance, to environmental change and increased urbanisation. The subsurface is a dynamic environment influenced by the interaction of water, heat and engineering activities. The built environment, especially in cities, modifies the natural links between the surface and the subsurface by interacting with and changing the surface drivers or by directly changing the structure of the subsurface.

Q2 How should NERC ensure that our research and innovation investments deliver the most impact?

Mobility of people, from academia to industry and vice versa, is a vital knowledge transfer vehicle. Postgraduate training (MSc, PhD and beyond) is essential to facilitate this, as well as providing a capable, diverse workforce, equipped to tackle challenges of the future. Critically, industry (and society more generally) needs a stock of highly qualified scientists, aware of societal needs. That stock arises from training and investment in blue sky research. The development of the North Sea petroleum industry in the 1970s, which drew on such a stock, exemplifies this.

Mechanisms to stimulate university-industry collaboration will maximise economic impact and help deliver material benefits to the public.

NERC should also build partnerships with scientific societies. Organisations like the Geological Society can help engage the academic community with NERC’s priorities; and are increasingly active and adept in communicating the value of research to policy-makers, school students, media and the public, in terms of economic benefit, provision of resources and services, and addressing societal challenges. Learned and professional societies are meeting grounds for scientists from academia, industry and government, and can provide an invaluable point of contact with industry below the level of very large companies with which NERC may have individual partnerships.

Q3 Given the priorities identified in your answer to questions 1 and 2, who are key partners NERC should be working with?

The Geological Society is a potentially important partner for NERC. Some reasons for this are outlined above. We are keen to build a more active working relationship with NERC, and would welcome the opportunity to discuss how we might work better together to address shared priorities. We will contact NERC to arrange a meeting.

Many emerging geoscience issues and challenges are global. So it is important that NERC builds partnerships with international funding agencies (and national funders outside the UK) to develop expensive facilities and take advantage of other wide-ranging research opportunities. This will be necessary in future if we are to meaningfully address issues such as climate change and meeting global energy needs. Strong relationships with other UK research councils are also vital – not least with regard to research into social acceptance of scientific and technological developments.

NERC recognises the need to build strong partnerships with industry. As noted above, we can help reach relevant sectors through our Fellowship, most of whom work in industrial sectors which NERC has identified as strategic priorities, including engineering geology, environmental geoscience and hydrogeology, the petroleum industry, and mining and quarrying. (See our July 2013 response to NERC’s strategy consultation for further detail.)

Q4 How could NERC's research and innovation investments best support innovation and growth at a regional/local scale?

Many geoscience-based industries are regional in nature, being shaped by location of resources. The Tellus projects in Northern Ireland and the South West have been successful on several fronts, including improving understanding of mineral, water and energy resource potential. They also provide a potential bridge to communities whose confidence must be won and kept if social licence to operate is to be secured and the value of research harnessed for the benefit of society as a whole.

CCS is an example of an emerging opportunity for innovation and growth where NERC science has an essential role to play, and which will necessarily be highly regional because of the geospatial distribution both of CO2 sources (energy generation and other industrial sources) and of storage capacity capable of development (depleted hydrocarbons reservoirs in the North Sea, for instance, but also other suitable geological formations). This presents challenges to implementation of CCS at scale, but also significant opportunities to develop innovation clusters, to stimulate university-industry capabilities at a regional level, and to fuel regional economic growth.

Scientific societies’ regional groups have significant potential to stimulate effective university-industry links at a regional level – we would be pleased to discuss this topic further.

Q5 Do you have any other comments about NERC's strategic investment priorities?

Core funding for solid Earth geoscience must be retained. We say this not as ‘special pleading’, but because improving our fundamental understanding of the solid Earth and its interfaces with the ocean, atmosphere and biosphere is essential to Earth system science approaches, and to addressing societal challenges such as building resilience to hazards, locating and sustainably using resources and adapting to our changing climate. Solid Earth geoscience plays an essential part in all three example themes cited in the consultation documentation (ocean exploration, urban living and flooding). Attempts at holistic environmental policy-making based on ecosystem services models have tended to neglect the role of the geosphere and solid Earth geoscience in these integrated systems. UK and devolved governments increasingly recognise that this deficit is detrimental to effective environmental management, and NERC’s science base will be indispensible in improving this.

State-of-the-art infrastructure is needed to tackle the research problems that will have greatest impact. This could be analytical/experimental (e.g. SIMS and nanoSIMS, large-scale high-pressure experimental facilities) or computational (clusters). NERC's existing facilities have an excellent record of impact. In making capital investment decisions, the need for continuing revenue expenditure on people, maintenance, etc must also be recognised.