Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Where is Geoscience going anyway? An opinion.

At the HORIZON GEOSCIENCE policy dinner debate.
The high level panel debate with (L-R) the host Jonathan Bamber,
EGU President, John Ludden, BGS Director, Lieve Wierinck, MEP,
Jean-Eric Pacquet, DH Research and Innovation and
Vitor Correa, EFG President.
As Chief Executive of the British Geological Survey I am often invited to talk about the Survey or more often what Earth scientists do in general. These reflections were part of presentations at the Resourcing Future Generations Conference in Vancouver, Canada in June 2018 and will be presented at the Korea Institute of Geology and Minerals (KIGAM) centenary at the end of October 2018 in Busan, Korea. More specifically they were used to prepare a round-table organised by the European Geosciences Union (EGU) and the European Federation of Geologists (EFG) on the role of geoscience in Europe. It provides my view and not necessarily one that is shared by the organisation I run or the earth science community in general.

1. Introduction


I feel it is necessary to start with a definition to set the boundaries of this discussion paper so I turn to Wikipedia:

Earth science or geoscience is a widely embraced term for the fields of science related to the planet Earth. It is the branch of science dealing with the physical constitution of the earth and its atmosphere. Earth science is the study of our planet’s physical characteristics, from earthquakes to raindrops, and floods to fossils. Earth science is a branch of planetary science, but with a much older history. “Earth science” is a broad term that encompasses four main branches of study, each of which is further broken down into more specialized fields
 
In fact much of what I state in this paper is focussed on the “Solid Earth and it’s interfaces” as I am unqualified to discuss the more fluid Earth. However, I suspect that the basic tenets of this discussion: “that scientists need to move to solving problems related to the future of the Earth and the species that live on it (including humans), rather than simply identification of the problems”, is true across the geosciences.
 
It is time to move towards provision of environmental and Earth-science solutions that require interdisciplinary science involving engineers and physical scientists as well as the social and economic sciences.
 

2. What are some of the fundamental tenets of geoscience?


In producing documents to underline the importance of Earth sciences in Europe specifically
https://www.bgs.ac.uk/EarthScienceEurope/?src=topNav, some of us have produced a simple definition of what we think geoscience is all about.
 
  • Understanding the dynamic Earth: The internal motor of our planet has built the continents and created a habitat for life. It shapes the Earth’s surface and affects our society on human timescales.
  • Creating a safe and healthy planet: Minimize the impact of unavoidable natural hazards and build a cleaner, sustainable environment.
  • Living sustainably on planet Earth: Provide the foundation of the exploration and responsible use of global natural resources, now and in the future.
  • Driving growth: Find the resources that build economic prosperity, support industry and promote innovative technologies.
  • Reducing global inequities: Support science, education and industry in developing nations.


3. The big questions are still there and they require discovery science

 
Earth scientists specifically those in university departments, should still pursue the big academic questions with will allow us to discover more about the planet. Although there are many, some of the “big” questions are listed here.
  • How do planets form?
  • Where did Earth’s water come from?
  • What causes ice ages?
  • What causes mass extinctions?
  • What causes reversals in Earth's magnetic field?
  • Are there volcanic and earthquake precursors that can lead to useful predictions?


4. There are new drivers for applied geoscience research

 
There are significant problems facing the Earth and the people living on it. A significant effort in research has been in defining the extent of challenges that we are facing, not only with changing climate dynamics but also with population growth and associated urbanisation and resource demand. Solving these challenges require the basic knowledge and public understanding of how the Earth may change in their lifetime or in future generations. Underlying this is the need for data on the Earth system, which will be open to all stakeholders and the public and used to define realistic base lines and models of the Earth (climate, resources, health etc.). This shall form a universal knowledge base on which society, economy and business can define options on how to mitigate or respond to change.  

Notwithstanding this Earth and environmental scientist need to focus efforts more on the solution and not the problem, our research should be increasingly goal directed and should be aimed at achieving practical objectives and outcomes.

This shift in emphasis will be enabled by a technological revolution, some examples being the increased use of underground sensors, high-resolution visualisation tools such as the European Plate Observing System (EPOS) and ExtremeEarth, all associated with super-computers. Additionally the proliferation of low-tech citizen-derived data (smart sensors carried by people, urban sensors etc.) will require curation, analysis and sorting for valuable information that is of use.

We are in the process of moving away from fossil fuels and essentially decarbonising the planet. The rate at which we achieve this will be driven by economic factors, but many of the low-carbon solutions are geological and they require us to work across the science, engineering and socio-economic spheres. Examples are shale gas extraction, carbon capture and subsurface storage, geothermal energy and energy storage and some forms of waste storage, and all require a more invasive use of the subsurface. The technology to achieve this decarbonisation requires the application of high-resolution geophysical, geochemical and geo-biological processes to engineered solutions.

We need to make a more effective shift from global geological hazard research to risk-related research. This requires us to effect a shift from identification of hazard from an earthquake, volcano or landslide, to modelling and prediction and communication of geological risk – that is where the hazard affects people’s lives directly.

Global population management and urban growth require geoscience research in provision of water, food, health services and energy where most needed. Resources will continue to be needed provide wealth to developing nations. Increasingly an integrated approach to resource development (corridors) will require modelling the geology, subsurface use such as groundwater and aggregate availability and associated infrastructure. This is no different to the approach of geological surveys in developed countries, but this needs to be translated globally. I fully anticipate that the rate of digital development in parts of Africa and other developing regions to leap-frog the western-world’s reliance on adapted legacy data-systems.

Driven most probably by industry, we will explore and inhabit the Moon and other planetary bodies. This will require us to innovate on Earth with remote sensing new quantum sensors and novel construction techniques (eg 3D printing) to be translated to the moon and planets.  At the same time we will require new sources of minerals, both on Earth and as we explore our planetary system. This will also lead to a surge in fundamental Earth sciences in domains such as lunar and planetary petrology; it is thus essential that the basic disciplines of earth sciences be maintained.

Earth scientists have the experience and knowhow to deal with global data sets. They should take the lead in the creation of, and innovation with, multi-disciplinary Earth data sets. This requires us to establish a generic strategy to reconstruct and simulate the multi-level organisation of the Earth for different domains (energy, climate, biodiversity, resources etc.). To calibrate and reinitialize whole Earth system models for the “satellite era” the past ~30 years, including uncertainties on these models. 
 
We need a platform operated as a community resource that will generate a  3D and time scalable model/representation of the Earth’s environment in time sequences into the future and in parallel, develop a cyber-infrastructure built to meet the current and future needs of Earth and environmental scientists. Including high-resolution environmental modelling from newly acquired observation platforms and networks.
 

5. Is our science too parochial and can we undertake some “extreme geoscience”?


Drilling the ocean-floor via what is currently the Integrated Ocean Discovery programme (IODP) is about as adventurous as we get in the earth sciences. IODP and similar drilling programmes have produced some good discovery science, but with limited applied science; although industry has used the geological models to refine their strategies. The Planetary science and astronomy community have no qualms with multiple hundreds of millions of dollar missions and infrastructure; we struggle when an operation exceeds ~$20-30 million.

Let’s get into some geo-engineering – in fact let’s appropriate the geo in geoengineering!

Can we drill into a magma body and control the magma/fluid system. Both in terms of geothermal energy and magma-engineering to control eruption of magma? Can we seal faults using imaginative mineralogy perhaps mediated through bio-geochemical engineering? Let’s undertake a fully researched hydrofrack, which covers both the optimisation of resource use and assessment of environmental impacts and has full open data release.

In the UK we do now have UK Geoenergy Observatories which is a significant investment (£31 million capital from BEIS-funded via NERC £7.5 million from BGS. resource to manage UKGEOS and a series of UKRI-funded research programmes) all taking our science in the direction I propose.

In the marine realm, can we significantly modify coral reef growth rates and enhance CO2 removal using a geo-engineering approach. How can we better manage the ocean floor using robotic technology?

6. The challenge


This opinion piece essentially  proposes that Earth scientists need to reconnect discovery science, applied science and translation of science.

I would state that academics are too focussed on Earth’s history rather than its future and that we as earth scientists should be solving environmental problems rather than simply identifying them?
I also suggest that we need to propose some BIG Earth Science projects that match or exceed those of the planetary scientists and astronomers – even if these are aimed at geo-engineering of the planet they will have significant fundamental research associated with them.

University research and teaching on oil and gas (and minerals) is decreasing and the concept of leave it (training and research) to the companies is beginning to creep in, as some universities see divestment as a means of attracting students. There may well therefore be a skills shortage in the basic earth sciences (the geo-subject and petro-subjects) developing and the associated industries will struggle to achieve their hiring targets. We thus need to provide new career paths (non-academic) for Earth science students.

Communication with government and the public will remain a major concern. Fighting public perception on what are perceived as environmentally unacceptable industries, but that provide essential resource remains a problem. We will be required to train students and be prepared as professional geologists to dealing with tougher environmental regulations, greater public scrutiny and will need better links with socio-economic research.

Monday, 30 July 2018

The BGS Board, its Terms of Reference and Minutes of the first meeting (April 2018)


I blogged previously about the creation of the BGS Board and the quality of non-executive members that we managed to attract. It is a truly dynamic group of people which will help nurture and challenge BGS and if you have not yet checked out who is on the Board, I encourage you to do so here.

We will be releasing summary minutes of the BGS Board meetings and activities in which they are involved. You can find the summary of the first meeting, along with the Terms of Reference for the Board.

As would be expected, the Board will have oversight of both the operational and strategic activities of BGS. Our Chair of the Board, Sir Keith O’Nions, will report to the Executive Chair of NERC-UKRI, thus assuring governance relationships are appropriate.

We have already strengthened our Health and Safety activities and the Board congratulated BGS on being one of the first science institutes in the UK in receiving ISO 45001 Accreditation. 

BGS has adjusted its financial reporting to ensure full understanding by the Board, moving towards an accounting presentation that is more suited to the BGS mixed financial culture, with its Public Role and Research and Private sector sources of funding and spending.

As you will know, BGS is refreshing its strategy and will develop a new Business Plan in the coming months. We are also creating a new science governance structure which will involve the creation of an external Science Advisory Committee (SAC). The advertisement for the roles on the committee can be found at here. We would encourage staff to share the advert with senior science/data leaders from our stakeholders and partners.

As part of their induction, our Board members participated in a seminar looking at our Public Role and how we define and refine this for the future. I enclose a slide pack that I used to outline this to the Board.

John Ludden


Tuesday, 1 May 2018

BGS enters a new era

BGS is about to enter a new era. It is moving from NERC as its legal owner to the newly created UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and has created a BGS board that will function as if BGS is an arms length GovCo. The intention of this is to put BGS into the most appropriate governance structure so that it will flourish. 

Following the nomination of Sir Keith O’Nions as Board chair, BGS now has a board whose membership covers the spectrum from survey, academia, government and industry. The board will engage with the BGS executive in deciding how best to place BGS in the mix from government advice underpinned by research, innovation and also niche commercial activities. 

BGS will work closely with NERC still, although its public good activities will be overseen by the Board and independent review. We will operate the Earth sector facilities for NERC and will continue to engage with key partnerships with university departments in the earth and environment sector. 

The opportunity to operate in the new UKRI environment will allow synergies with other research council agendas and also with InnovateUK and play a role in the UK industrial strategy and global programmes led from UKRI. 

BGS finished the past financial year with a planned surplus and an increase in staff numbers to ~ 640. Here is the summary corporate PowerPoint that I presented to the first BGS Board meeting on Friday 27th April.

Monday, 18 December 2017

The BGS Annual Review



Dear Friend of BGS 

I enclose here our Annual Review for 2016-2017 

BGS is healthy as you will realise when you read the report. We are a diverse organisation working at the cutting edge of solving research problems in earth and environmental sciences.  

We are about to embark on a new era with the creation of a BGS board, which will be chaired by Sir Keith O'Nions and will be starting the search procedure to fill the posts on the BGS Board. Please apply if you feel you can contribute to BGS at this level.

 The report is organised around our regional impacts including global science.

 I hope you enjoy the read and I wish you all the best for the season and 2018. 




Thursday, 13 July 2017

The BGS core science programme

Royal assent has allowed the passage into law of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017). It is expected that UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will be properly established in April 2018, following an implementation period. A UKRI Executive Committee comprising the CEOs of the research councils has been created that will ensure overall strategic coherence and maximise effective working across the entirety of UKRI. Through this transition, the BGS will seek the freedoms to allow it to flourish as a survey and, as you will see, we have already made significant progress in this.

We are in a period where BGS funding is relatively secure (Figure 1), although the funding we receive from government, currently via the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), is increasingly targeted (Figure 2). This does mean that we will have to suspend some activities or reduce them, while increasing others. This is of course an ongoing activity, but is more acute this year than in the past.

The BGS has agreed with NERC that our core budget will be ring fenced and clearly directed to national and public good (NPG) activities, including the research lines that underpin these activities and ensure that we retain our excellence as a geological survey. This explicit recognition of our NPG role is powerful for us. We will continue to compete for research council grants and will have a strong industrial and innovation portfolio in addition to having our own commercial interests. To oversee the core budget spending and activities in general, NERC will create a BGS board and will be appointing the members in the coming months.

Our projected annual expenditure is forecast at £47.6 million in 2017–18, together with capital investment of £10 million. Our staff levels have been managed down to about 580 in recent years, although associated with the development of a major infrastructure activity (see UKGEOS) we will be increasing our headcount this coming year for the first time in a decade.

Official Development Assistance (ODA)

The budget for the UK research councils was inflated in the current comprehensive spending review (CSR) settlement by a significant amount for Official Development Assistance (ODA). Some of this has been earmarked for NERC, and an amount that corresponds to about 15 per cent of the BGS core NERC budget has been identified for us to spend over the current CSR period. This means that we will need to reassign some UK national activities to overseas activities.

We are developing three platforms to respond to this: one around east African geoscience and resilience, one on south-east Asian megacities and their hinterland catchments, and one on global geological risk. These will allow us to position the BGS for additional competitive funding streams in the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) where the majority of these ODA funds reside inside UKRI.

UK GeoEnergy Observatories (UKGEOS)

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has now approved this capital project and £31 million will be invested over two years to create world-class, subsurface energy-research test centres operated by the BGS.

UKGEOS will provide scientific energy-related test beds in two geologically different locations in the UK. Each site will comprise a network of deep and shallow boreholes, enabling geoscientists to undertake long-term observation of the subsurface for the first time and in unprecedented detail. They will deliver new information for the interpretation, modelling and monitoring of the environment from the surface down to more than 1500 m.

The BGS will target about 15 per cent of its core funding to operate these sites.

Innovation funding

The BGS is an institution that sits in an applied-science space between fundamental research, innovation and commercialisation. In the future, we will explicitly map our innovation funding to science directorates with clear key-performance indicators and evaluation of outcomes. We will provide internal, flexible funding to respond to opportunities, developing our innovation pipeline in a timely way. At the same time, we will invest in an innovation hub that will include machine-technology capabilities. We expect this strategy to align with future UKRI industrial strategy and regional development. The yearly investment corresponds to approximately another 15 per cent of the core budget for the coming three years.

EU funding

About five per cent of BGS funding comes from the EU and a significant part of this is associated with infrastructure development (field laboratories and data) and in some cases we lead the core services in these infrastructures. We are hopeful that the UK will continue to invest in EU infrastructure, especially as some of these facilities are key to UK international competitiveness.

BGS staff and programme reorganisation

The overall budget for the BGS is shown in the pie charts Figures 1, 2 and 3. It is evident that once the costs of information development and management are taken into account, the balance of core budget that can be assigned to other NPG tasks is limited.

To be more effective, the BGS will restructure its directorates. We will reassign staff in the geology and regional geophysics and land, soils and coast directorates and embed them in key directorates, thus bringing our activities closer to partners, users and markets.

Across the BGS there will be focus on three challenges:

  1. decarbonisation of power production, heat, transport and industry
  2. environmental change adaptation
  3. natural geological hazard and risk

Our major science effort will be in harnessing our new infrastructure including UKGEOS; our activities in sub-seafloor science; catchment observatories, and global hazard observatories.

In general, there will be a reduced focus on rocks and sediments as indicators of past events and a corresponding increase in focus on rocks as conduits for processes that affect lives and livelihoods. Improved methods of storing and delivering information within the BGS will allow greater efficiency and an ability to do "more with less". We will also seek new ways of funding our activities through interaction with government and the private sector.

At the same time, we will enhance our regional delivery for England, in addition to that which is already specific for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have created a Wales and south-west England focus from the Cardiff office, which has recently relocated to the Cardiff University campus. Moving our Edinburgh office to the Lyell Centre on the Heriot-Watt campus, along with our marine infrastructure facility, has brought a new focus to BGS Scotland. From England we will deliver a south and south-east England regional geology hub; a Midlands (including East Anglia) hub, and a northern England hub. All of these regional and devolved administration activities will have a presence in regional partnerships.

Most importantly, the BGS will continue to have geologists with feet on the ground to ensure that we develop a more dynamic geological map, including real-time data acquisition. We will thus enhance our training and continuous professional development for field geologists.

Overall, the BGS is about to undertake its biggest transformation since joining NERC in 1965. It will gain more independence than it has had in 50 years. Technological development in sensors, high-volume computing, and visualisation and modelling are driving us to a new form of geological survey, and we are leading the world's surveys in many of these activities. At the same time, international opportunities are growing through GCRF funding, an expanding DfID programme, and more global impact in general.

The BGS will greatly benefit from the new freedoms and flexibilities afforded to it in a new governance structure. We will continue to forge partnerships in the UK and globally with institutes, universities and industry, while maintaining our independence and social responsibility.

Prof John Ludden
Executive Director

©

Monday, 21 November 2016

BGS Annual Science Review

I am pleased to present the BGS Annual Science Review for 2015/16.

In the review we have chosen to focus on the BGS working with nations; the devolved administrations of the UK and nations globally.  Our strategy is focused on state of-the-art geological modelling and technology for monitoring the subsurface with our aim for people to feel confident that we know what is below their feet and how this will be managed and may change during their lifetimes.

We have activities in all parts of the UK and worked in 79 countries globally. Environmental monitoring and modelling were a strong focus in all of our UK activities this year: working on baseline monitoring for potential future shale gas extraction in northern England; monitoring heat from abandoned mine waters in South Wales and Glasgow, and subsidence monitoring of abandoned mines in Northern Ireland with the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI).

On the energy front, we worked as part of a national effort on carbon capture and storage (CCS) in Wales and looked at the sub-Irish sea floor CO2 storage potential. We are also part of the UK CCS group in Edinburgh, and are still helping out South Africa in CCS and shale gas development.

Infrastructure and data to support infrastructure development remain key parts of the BGS and we released software packages that allow better definition of borehole data and visualisation of geological cross-sections via ‘Groundhog’. In response to a recommendation by a Parliamentary report on unconventional gas, we released a database on the regional stress field that will be of use in subsurface activities including ‘fracking’, geothermal and energy storage.

Our public-good-facing activities are underpinned by state-of-the-art applied research, and our outputs in publications have almost doubled in five years with a marked shift towards high-impact outputs in highly rated science journals; in 2015-16 we wrote ~300 papers of which ~30% were in Impact Factor 5 or above publications. 

We moved our science base in Scotland to a new home, the Lyell Centre, at Heriot-Watt University (HWU), Edinburgh. Our staff are in a fully open and modern building shared with HWU and we also moved our marine operations onsite.

The Lyell Centre, BGS's new home in Scotland

This significantly strengthens our visibility and presence in Scotland. In 2017, we will move into the Cardiff University campus and hope to achieve the same for GSNI with Queen’s University of Belfast, thus creating strong academic links in all parts of the UK.

Looking forward to 2016/17 we are starting with a balanced budget, significant capital infrastructure investment in the energy sector and a growing overseas development programme as part of the new Research Councils UK Global Challenges programme.


Tuesday, 2 August 2016

BGS welcomes the Keyworth and District Footpath Association (KADFA)

The BGS headquarters is located in Keyworth on the outskirts of Nottingham. We are a somewhat enigmatic place that the locals view as a positive asset to a small dormitory town to Nottingham. We know that they wonder what goes on behind the hedges and they have no idea how far back the site reaches. It is thus a pleasure that we welcomed the Keyworth Walking Club on site as part of this year’s walking programme.


They were met by me and then received an amusing and factual account of how the geological walkway was put together from Steve Parry of BGS.

Dr Steve Parry introduces the BGS Geological Walkway

The tour ended in the Core Store (National Geological Repository) which is an impressive thing to have on your door step, whilst not knowing it. It allowed me to pass on a message about energy security and answer questions on geohazards and reassure the locals that we are doing a good job for the UK and globally.

Me introducing the impressive Core Store on site at Keyworth

Trevor Lax of KADFA said "We had a tremendous morning being shown around BGS. Steve, who took us on the Geological Walk was "top class". His talk was very informative and good humoured. John Ludden was so knowledgable and enthusiastic about the most valuable work BGS carries out. It was a great community event. Thank you to all who made it happen." 

Photos courtesy of Trevor Lax, KADFA.