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A Geoscience Strategic Alliance

Sian Davies-Vollum and colleagues report on the launch of a new alliance to establish a widespread understanding of geoscience as a key component of UK society and economy

Words by Sian Davies-Vollum
25 June 2024

An aerial image of the coast at Great Orme, Llandudno, Wales. Geoscience underpins the provision of resources to the UK’s population and industry, delivers a wide range of essential services, and helps us understand how we can live more sustainably. (Image credit: jay-jerry, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Geoscience is critical for meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring a sustainable future for our planet. Geoscientists’ core skills make them essential to a variety of careers across sectors encompassing industry, government, the civil service, and non-government organisations. Despite this need, the pipeline of those graduating with a degree in geoscience has been squeezed over the past decade, with the decline in geology graduates across the UK well documented (for example, see articles in Geoscientist 29(8), 2019 and Geoscientist 33(4), 2023). Geoscience now features on the UK Government’s 2023 shortage occupation list for science and engineering (Table 1), an inventory of occupations for which there is a shortage of skilled labour in the UK based on recommendations of the Migration Advisory Committee.

To help address this unmet demand, we are building the Geoscience Strategic Alliance. Spearheaded by University Geoscience UK (UGUK) and the Geological Society, with support from the British Geological Survey, the alliance will bring together interested parties from across the UK geoscience sector that will work cooperatively and collaboratively to change negative perceptions, create influence, and establish a widespread understanding of geoscience as a key component of UK society and economy.

 Table 1 | Geoscience jobs listed on the Government shortage occupation list

Shortage occupation category Specific job titles
 

Physical scientists in the construction-related ground engineering industry

 

Engineering Geologist; Hydrogeologist; Geophysicist

 

Physical scientists in the oil and gas industry

(note this is the category under which jobs in the mining sector is listed)

 

Geophysicist; Geoscientist; Geologist; Geochemist; Senior Resource Geologist and Staff Geologist in the mining sector

 

Modified from UK Gov (2023a) and Richmond (2023)

Beyond our bubble

Geoscientists clearly have a key role to play in generating a sustainable, carbon neutral economy. Geoscientific skills include an understanding the subsurface, practical investigative field and laboratory-based skills, and the ability to take multidisciplinary approaches, to work across a wide range of spatial and temporal time scales, and to recognise complex relationships through systems – all skills that are crucial for the energy, water, mining, engineering, environmental-protection, and hazards sectors.

Yet, the UK is not realising the potential of geoscience to contribute to the UK society and economy more broadly. We have low diversity in our sector and poor Research and Development funding, with the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) being the smallest of the UK research councils. Graduate and post-graduate geoscience programmes have closed (particularly those at institutes that gained university status since 1992), other programmes have merged, and some have lost their specialisation. With a reduction in universities offering geoscience, we are reaching fewer people. Geoscience is not celebrated or appreciated and is notable by its absence in the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee’s 2024 STEM for Britain categories (https://stemforbritain.org.uk/).

Since 2018, activities by UGUK, the advocacy group and representative for geoscience providers in Higher Education, working together with the Geological Society, have focused on raising awareness of the subject and its importance, and on highlighting and taking action to reverse the crisis in geoscience enrolment at universities and enhance student uptake. We collaborated on a strategy (UGUK & the Geological Society, 2020) that forms the basis for UGUK actions (for a full account of our action over the past five years, see The UGUK Exec. Commit., 2023).

Our recent focus is on the clear need to influence beyond our geoscience “bubble” and reach decision makers in policy, governance, and the various employment sectors (public, private, charity/non-government organisations, and industry). In November 2023, UGUK held an online event to explore how we might raise awareness of geoscience beyond our current sphere of influence, and consider the resources needed to do this effectively. Our guest speakers included Lord Philip Norton, Baron of Louth, who talked about ways to engage with government; Holger Kessler (AtkinsRéalis) who shared his experiences of working with the Government Office for Science on the development of the Future of the Subsurface project (UK Gov, 2023b); and Marie Cowan (Head of the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland), who gave an inspirational talk on the need for all working in geoscience to pool expertise and resources and work collectively. From this event, the idea of developing a Geoscience Strategic Alliance was born.

Building the alliance

Fast forward to May 2024 and a kick-off Joint Higher Education Event, Building a Strategic Alliance, was held at Burlington House to bring together organisations and individuals keen to know more about the concept. The event attracted 78 participants in person with more joining online.

The vision is to build an alliance, or task force, of interested parties that can act collectively and strategically to influence people and organisations beyond the geoscience sector, to pool resources, exert strength in numbers, and advance shared goals. Such an alliance gives us an impact that is greater than the sum of our individual parts.

an alliance gives us an impact that is greater than the sum of our individual parts

Following a welcome address from Ruth Allington (outgoing President of the Geological Society), Sian Davies-Vollum (Chair UGUK) provided some background to, and motivation for, the event and Marie Cowan discussed the need for and actions to support the development of a strategic alliance.

A panel consisting of Anjana Khatwa (Earth scientist and TV presenter), Graham Goffey (Subsurface Task Force), Chris Jackson (Jacobs), and Joel Gill (Geology for Global Development and University of Cardiff), together with Marie Cowan, considered how we could re-imagine the future of geoscience and identify key priorities for the strategic alliance.

The discussion and following question-and-answer session (with input from those attending in person and online) covered the broader image and perceptions of geoscience, and the need to educate on the role of geoscience for sustainability, particularly within the context of climate change and achieving net zero, stressed the need to collaborate with diverse professional bodies, raise awareness in government, and to influence research councils and other funders. They also highlighted the role of schools and education, in particular in sparking curiosity for the natural world; the need to educate more widely on the variety of careers in geoscience; the diverse set of transferrable skills geoscience graduates possess that are of relevance to many careers; and the importance of strong links between universities and industry. Discussions during afternoon workshops helped identify key relevant parties and those we will need to engage to create influence.

The Joint Higher Education Event, Building a Strategic Alliance, held at Burlington House in May 2024, brought together organisations and individuals keen to know more about the concept.

Awareness and influence

We are currently working to raise awareness of the alliance and understand who is interested in contributing. We are in the process of establishing a steering group that will take the vision forward and oversee the strategies and objectives of the alliance. From this steering group, we anticipate the formation of several themed working groups that will focus on specific aspects of the initiative, with volunteers to act as theme leads. A fundamental activity for the alliance will be to influence key stakeholders – that is identify, map routes to and compile suggested content for relevant parties.

Expected future outputs include a thought leadership brief on the current and future significance of geoscience for the UK society and economy and, with funding and support, a more in-depth report detailing the economic and societal benefits of geoscience to the UK, to sit alongside work that the Geological Society has previously done in this area (such as, the 2014 report Geology for Society; www.geolsoc.org.uk/geology-for-society).

Once we have established the steering group, we will put out a call for anyone interested in being involved with the working groups and/or who can offer specific support and experience pertinent to the aims of the alliance. The UGUK Committee, which is made up of practising academics in the field of geoscience, remain optimistic that we can reverse the recent trends of falling student enrolment numbers and ensure that geoscience is re-established at the centre of the UK’s ambitions for a fairer, sustainable future.


To keep up to date with developments, visit GEON, the Geoscience Education and Outreach Network, at www.geolsoc.org.uk/geon

Catch up on the May 2024 discussions at the ‘Joint Higher Education Event 2024: Building a Strategic Alliance’ event here:


Authors

Professor Sian Davies-Vollum

University of Northampton, UK, and Chair of University Geoscience UK.

With input from colleagues on the UGUK Executive Committee

www.earth-science.org.uk

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