Heriot-Watt academic discusses the role that doctoral training needs to play in addressing decarbonisation



Professor John Underhill, Chair of Exploration Geoscience spoke after the First Minister announced at the Programme for Government on Wednesday, 5 September that the centrepiece was the work to tackle the climate emergency.

Scottish Government are now committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 at the latest - earlier than any other UK nation. Parliament will have the opportunity to pass this legislation in the autumn.

Professor Underhill said: “At a time when prospective students are being put off by the perceived association of geologists with 'dirty' industries, energy resources and environmental damage, it is rather ironic yet apposite that geoscientists and their skill sets are a vital part of the solution, not just the cause.

“While a better understanding of the subsurface was central to the carbonisation of our environment through the exploration, extraction and use of fossil fuels, the same skills and expertise that developed these resources can significantly contribute to decarbonisation solutions.

“To address this issue, and the other grand challenges faced by humanity, and to provide a legacy and new generation of relevant, skilled geoscientists, we must reassess how we educate and undertake research. There is a skills gap that needs addressing and new methods of training that embrace new technologies and innovation are required.”

The National Environment Research Council (NERC) Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) model, of the type governed and run by Heriot-Watt University is extremely well placed to adapt and evolve to meet the challenge.

Awarded in 2013 and launched the year after, the CDT programme is an exemplar of how post-graduate research and training can evolve to move away from a specific oil-and-gas remit that it was originally ascribed, to address some of the key issues facing us and the changing world that we live in today.

Originally funded through a £3 million award from NERC that enabled the recruitment of 10 four-year PhD students in each of its first three years, the attraction of the CDT model has leveraged an additional £11.5 million to enable a further 110 PhD students to join the programme.

£1.5 million of that has come from industry to support its training programme, £6 million from university scholarships and £1 million through the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) initiative that has financed additional studentships in Clean Energy and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Professor Underhill continued: “The UK has considerable experience in subsurface development and a wealth of knowledge that will be invaluable as we address the decarbonisation challenge. It is essential that we train future generations in the skills required for the emerging geoscience sectors and subsurface industries.

“However, to deliver such a workforce requires support for geoscience education. In particular, continued support for doctoral training that focuses on equipping students with advanced technical and scientific skills is vital. The benefit and impact of such support is proven by the thematic CDT model, a hugely successful, collaborative initiative involving 17 UK Universities, two Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Research Centres (the British Geological Survey (BGS) and National Oceanography Centre (NOC)) and eight industry partners.

“That support has now enabled the extension of the CDT programme for two years beyond its original period. The scheme has proved popular, as exemplified by the gender balance (>40% women have enrolled) and there is a keen competition for PhD places in the CDT programme. The first cohort of students have graduated in the past year and gone into jobs in Government, academia, industry and the media.”

The fact that those graduating from the scheme are securing jobs in technical disciplines, are informing policy and in global communications attests to the fact that the training they received enhances their employability.

The benefit of the CDT approach means that students feel a part of a bigger connected community and a UK-wide initiative, as well as their host university's graduate school. The combination of lab- and field-based residential classes generates a strong “esprit de corps”.

This network will undoubtedly serve the students well throughout their subsequent careers. It has also seen more cross-university, collaborative, co-supervised projects that tackle key issues that spring up.

Professor Underhill added: “It is evident that the commitment to decarbonise requires the provision of skilled practitioners, who have the pre-requisite technical expertise across the whole spectrum of energy systems. We will need a wide variety of geoscientific skills to evaluate safe carbon storage, supervise decommissioning and to examine the impact and potential of renewable sources, be they geothermal, wind, wave, hydro, solar, nuclear or in other novel forms, such as cold energy or heat storage.

“We will continue to need people who can undertake the environmental monitoring of oil and gas extraction, both conventional and unconventional, such as shale gas, including human induced seismicity, as well as those who are best placed to extend the life of UK basins like the North Sea as we seek to move away from our fossil fuel dependence.

“The CDT's training provision already embraces innovation in areas like digital technologies, augmented reality, virtual reality, immersive 3D vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence, but is open, keen and able to develop doctoral skill sets in these areas.

“To achieve all of this demands a collective effort and partnership between research and training providers. It is essential to break down academic silos and accept that no one place has all the solutions. As the CDT model demonstrates, when collaboration is effective, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The scale of the geo-energy and decarbonisation challenge dictates that we adopt such an approach. The CDT stands ready to build upon its strong foundation to address the need to decarbonise.”

For the full article visit - https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/Geoscientist/September-2019/Feature-1

For more information on the CDT visit - https://www.nerc-cdt-oil-and-gas.ac.uk/