Science & Technology

Australia’s Unfolding Geoscience Malady – Eos

In July, the Australian geosciences community was shocked to learn that the globally recognized School of Earth and Planetary Science at Macquarie University in Sydney had been culled as part of the university’s efforts to deal with pandemic-related revenue losses. This was the latest blow after a prolonged, nearly 2-year downsizing process during which 18 of the 21 academics who worked at the school have now been let go and, with them, Macquarie’s ability to provide a well-rounded geoscience education. In the wake of this purge, the three remaining staff are left to bear what remains of the teaching load.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated event. A string of mergers, cutbacks, and closures have hit geoscience departments across Australia in response to the recent financial pressures and low undergraduate enrollment numbers. The Australian National University Research School of Earth Sciences in Canberra made drastic cuts in December 2020, including a massive reduction in its operating budget and laying off 20 permanent staff members, plus additional contract employees. This layoff resulted in reduced levels of technical support across the entire school, the closure of its renowned mechanical workshop, and a major reduction in the research capability of the world’s first SHRIMP (Sensitive High-Resolution Ion Microprobe) mass spectrometer laboratory, responsible for dating many of the oldest known Earth and extraterrestrial materials ever discovered.

Meanwhile, at the University of Newcastle, the geology major was dropped completely. In total, seven of the 21 Australian geoscience departments have been hit with substantive reductions in staffing and curriculum offerings in the past few years, and many others have suffered smaller reductions.

Although faults in Australian geoscience education predate COVID-19, the significant financial pressure inflicted upon Australian universities as a result has catalyzed its rapid fragmentation. More casualties are likely to come as the Australian university sector is forecast to lose up to AU$19 billion (US$13.7 billion) between 2020 and 2023 because of the collapse of international student revenue. The federal government’s refusal to financially back the university sector has forced institutions across the country to consolidate their educational offerings to those that generate the greatest profit margin. In 2020, 17,300 university jobs and AU$1.8 billion (4.9% of 2019 revenue) were lost across Australia, with a further 5.5% drop estimated for 2021. Research-related staff have been particularly hard hit, with women, early-career researchers, and recent graduates disproportionately affected. A 2020 federal decision to cut funding for Earth and environmental science courses by 29% has only compounded the situation, setting the sights of financially strapped universities looking to cut overhead squarely on the backs of geoscience departments.

The loss of these geoscience resources could not come at a worse time. Australia faces unprecedented environmental and energy challenges while simultaneously trying to revitalize an economy stunted by the COVID-19 pandemic. To tackle these challenges and ensure a sustainable and prosperous future, Australia needs the very geoscience expert community currently being diminished.

Geoscience, as the interface between humanity and Earth, is essential to tackling climate change and will aid in the economic recovery from COVID-19. The United Nations (UN) and the World Bank have championed geoscience as critical to reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, disaster risk reduction, and achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement (e.g., clean energy technologies will greatly increase the demand for critical minerals).

What, then, has led Australia to jeopardize its ability to respond to these challenges by making deep staffing cuts and closing entire geoscience programs? What measures can be taken to save Australian geoscience? And what implications does this have for the international geoscience community?

Broadening and Refocusing the Geoscience Narrative

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, student enrollment in geoscience majors was in decline across Australia, despite increasing demand from diverse geoscience industry sectors. Although undergraduate enrollment appears anecdotally to be bouncing back in Western Australia following a post-2016 revival of the mining industry largely based there, student numbers in southeastern geoscience departments have not rebounded sufficiently to ensure their viability. The problem is that many people in the more urbanized southeastern states and territories view mining as the only career option for someone who pursues geology studies, an industry they understand to be detrimental to the environment.

This enrollment crisis extends beyond the shores of Australia.

Undergraduate geoscience enrollment trends in Australia, the United States, and United Kingdom since 2003. National enrollment data are normalized to the maximum enrollment for each country during the recorded time span. Although national undergraduate enrollment data for geoscience subjects are not yet available post-2017 in Australia or after 2019 in the United Kingdom, it is expected that the downward trends in student numbers will be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Data sources are the Australian Geoscience Council, the American Geosciences Institute, and the U.K. Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). HESA undergraduate geoscience enrollment data for the United Kingdom are unavailable prior to the 2014–2015 academic year.

The United Kingdom has also seen a progressive decline in undergraduate geoscience enrollment since 2016. It has been attributed to a parallel reduction in geology course offerings in primary and secondary schools. Geoscience enrollment has similarly collapsed in the United States over the past 5 years, a trend that predates the 2019–2021 shrinkage of employment prospects in the U.S. petroleum, mining, and geological engineering industries. These numbers are all made more complicated by the pandemic, including challenges in charting enrollment during virtual learning.

Thus, a global recasting of the geoscience narrative as a mechanism for meeting the challenges of science and society is needed to better reflect the true merit and breadth of its disciplinary applications.

If we’re going to convince young people that a geoscience education can lead to rewarding careers, we need to remold geoscience curricula so they align with contemporary student values. First, it must be made clear that contrary to many inaccurate public perceptions, the expertise and capabilities of the mining and petroleum industries will play a fundamental role in the global fight against climate change. Simply put, without meeting the fivefold increase in demand for critical minerals and sequestering 190 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into sedimentary basins, we will fail to reach the Paris Agreement carbon neutrality targets. However, economic geology courses should be accompanied by interdisciplinary lessons on environmental and mining ethics, which could form a more substantive component of classes on Earth resources. While maintaining core geoscience education and pursuing fundamental research, broader societal applications should also be incorporated into our curricula, including subjects on sustainability, water resource management, geoengineering, and the mitigation of natural and anthropogenic hazards. These are just a few ideas for rebranding the discipline to accommodate the cultural differences between those who want to pursue employment in the geological resource sector and those who do not.

This adaptation of geoscience curricula for a new era must involve substantive change, not simply be lip service to creating a more progressive career tract. In at least one high-profile case in the United States, small changes to geoscience syllabi were insufficient to attract students, so the university is now attempting a full overhaul of the Earth science curriculum so it will focus on preparing students to meet the pressing challenges of today.

What is clear, however, is that in many places, the current model is not attracting enough students for geoscience departments to remain viable in a financially weakened university sector. A community-wide dialogue is thus needed to develop a revived and unified geoscience education narrative that captures the imagination of young minds.

National Strategies for Geoscience Education and Research

Perhaps more than any other developed nation, Australia’s wealth and prosperity depend on its geoscience expertise. This year alone, the country’s mineral and energy resource sector is forecast to generate AU$296 billion (US$214 billion) in export earnings (~10% of GDP) and will no doubt be key to powering Australia’s recovery from the tumultuous economics of the COVID-19 era. The nation’s ability to sustainably secure food, energy, and water is also reliant on the capacity of its geoscientists to discover, manage, and responsibly use its natural resources.

It is therefore in the government’s own best interest to preserve its geoscience capacity. Australia needs a national strategy for geoscience education and research to temper the fiscal decisions of universities and ensure a future geoscience workforce. Previous programs designed to build national capacity, such as the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute and the Minerals Tertiary Education Council (MTEC), were greatly successful in drawing increased enrollment when they were established over a decade ago. Indeed, the MTEC program contained many elements that could be implemented again today, with industry-funded teaching positions in critical geoscience disciplines created at several universities across the country, development of aligned national geoscience curricula, and funding travel for students to visit and study at other hubs across the country.

With new investment aligned to a national geoscience education strategy, teaching hubs across several universities could be identified and developed in areas of strength and strategic importance, such as renewable energy and critical mineral exploration, applied geophysics, water resource management, carbon sequestration, and geohazard mitigation. David Cohen, president of the Australian Geoscience Council, recently advocated for such a national geoscience professional development system. Cohen argued for a partnership between industry, government, universities, and professional societies, so that the system can deepen the skills of existing geoscientists while simultaneously providing a pathway for scientists from other fields to transition into the discipline.

When developing strategies to bolster its geoscience capacity, Australia might also look to the United Kingdom. In response to diminishing geoscience enrollment there, the Geological Society of London and University Geoscience UK have developed strategic aims to reinvigorate undergraduate-level geoscience education. In them, they lay out a multifaceted action plan for revamping geoscience education, funding, marketing, and diversity across a wide range of stakeholders to avoid the looming skills shortage. Addressing the geoscience maladies of Australia will require a similarly comprehensive strategy to be formulated and implemented by an alliance of geoscience departments, academic and professional societies, research infrastructure providers, industry advocates, and policymakers.

Saving Geoscience

Ensuring a sustainable and prosperous future, both in Australia and abroad, requires saving and empowering the geoscience community. Although geoscience departments produce relatively few graduates each year compared with other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines with which they compete for university funding, they are, nevertheless, required to produce the skilled geoscientists demanded across a variety of industries critical to societal well-being. Meeting the geoscience labor force needs of national and global communities must, therefore, become a strategic imperative for our universities.

To do this, national strategies involving geoscience, university, industry, and government stakeholders are needed that rebrand geoscience in line with contemporary student values, align secondary school curricula to teach geoscience in the context of societal betterment, and develop and fund nationally coordinated university research and education programs in areas of community priority.

Acknowledgments

We acknowledge the contributions of Mike Sandiford, Olivier Allard, Alan Collins, Annette George, and Jonathan Palmer for their informative input and suggestions.

Author Information

Samuel Boone ([email protected]) and Mark Quigley, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Vic., Australia; Peter Betts, Monash University, Clayton, Vic., Australia; Meghan Miller, Australian National University, Canberra; and Tim Rawling, AuScope, National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy Program for Geosciences, Melbourne, Vic., Australia

27 September 2021: This article was updated to remove a reference to the University of New South Wales.

Australia’s Unfolding Geoscience Malady – Eos
https://eos.org/opinions/australias-unfolding-geoscience-malady Australia’s Unfolding Geoscience Malady – Eos

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