University geoscience programs face a challenging future as the world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic – one that could have significant and even dire implications for oil and gas.
Educators, mostly outside the United States, are already sounding an alarm.
“We are losing applicants because the oil and gas energy industry is not seen as a secure, long-term source of employment,” said Jonathan Redfern, professor of petroleum geoscience at The University of Manchester in England.
“The recent – well not so recent, as it’s been going on for a number of years – reductions, job losses, mean that students don’t feel it offers a stable career prospect. That, despite many of our graduates still getting very good jobs and doing well. But perception is everything,” he added.
A first major challenge for universities is helping geoscience students who have had their studies interrupted by the pandemic while also coping with multiple changes in instruction practices, as well as a missed year of lab and field work.
In that regard, the past 12 months seem to have been less disastrous and disruptive than many teachers initially feared. Xavier Moonan in Trinidad probably spoke for the majority of university educators when he said, “This feels like the longest year we’ve ever had.”
Moonan has been named a recipient of AAPG’s Grover E. Murray Distinguished Educator Award for 2021, along with Brian Williams, emeritus professor of geology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
A lecturer in the petroleum geoscience program at the University of the West Indies’ St. Augustine campus in Trinidad, Moonan also has a career as a working professional in oil and gas exploration, as senior geoscientist for Touchstone Exploration (Trinidad) Ltd.
“I lecture on structural geology, field and mapping and petroleum geology of the southeast Caribbean at the undergraduate level, and petroleum geoscience at the master’s level,” he said.
Coping with COVID
During the past year, Moonan said, he was able to continue mentoring young professionals and students through virtual field trips and inspirational talks. He even put together a virtual field program on outcrops.
“With lockdowns in place around the world and restricted movement at times in Trinidad and Tobago, I decided to post a series of geo-related articles and fun facts on social media platforms,” he said.
“I had a ‘Time Travelling with Turbidites’ series for various deepwater turbidite reservoirs of Trinidad, and I highlighted many geo-touristic areas across the country and northeastern Latin America. And I continue to support the national disaster management agency in promoting awareness of geological hazards,” he added.
Moonan said his students appreciated that classes were recorded and available for review, while he found he could tackle his industry-related job and academic job from the same desk at home: “The reduced hassle to get to the university from my office shaved hours of stress off my day, and made me more productive,” he said.
“Luckily, I am also an avid drone pilot and have been documenting outcrops across the country, generating 3-D models and orthomosaics from them. These virtual outcrops were a lifesaver, so my students were able to continue our field work from the comfort of their homes,” Moonan noted.
“The virtual outcrops are OK for most typical geological observations, but of course they lack in giving students a sense of texture, grain sizes in some cases, and yup – taste! But for now, this is better than nothing,” he said.
Redfern also feels university educators have coped well with a difficult situation, despite the challenges of converting courses to online presentations, “recording lectures, building new online practicals and developing online field courses.
“Overall, I think we met the challenge and have delivered uninterrupted, quality programs,” Redfern said.
“The teaching method clearly lacks the contact that students benefit from, interaction with their peers. And online fieldwork, whilst good, in no way replaces real fieldwork, where students can touch the rocks, feel the scale of geology and interact and socialize, all the things that make our science so unique,” he observed.
Coping with Climate, Carbon
A second, looming and serious problem for university educators in petroleum-related geoscience is the increasingly negative image of the oil and gas industry worldwide, which presents a significant challenge to attracting new students and maintaining graduate degree programs.
There, the news isn’t good.
Redfern said UK universities are “feeling pressure due to reduced applicants on the petroleum-related masters courses, evidenced in many courses re-badging as ‘subsurface energy’ or looking at renewables” and other alternatives.
Some graduate programs are “closing altogether, such as at Imperial College petroleum MSc (master of science degree program) and petroleum engineering. In addition, Liverpool closed their reservoir MSc, Leeds didn’t run their geophysics MSc this year, Royal Holloway re-badged and Derby also closed/re-badged,” he noted.
“That leaves only three petroleum geoscience MScs in the UK, at Manchester, Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt. And numbers on those are low,” he said.
Because of its cyclicality, oil and gas has gone through cutbacks and layoffs and has fallen into disfavor as an employer many times before. But today, the industry is seen as more than just an unreliable employment choice, especially among younger students.
“It is also perceived as a polluting industry, and the impact on carbon emissions and climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed head on,” Redfern said.
“Many European oil companies are doing this. BP, Shell, ENI, Equinor, Total are all making huge changes, in investments and image. But that change isn’t filtering down, I don’t think, to students, who still basically see these companies as polluting oil companies,” he observed.
Preparing the Earth Scientist of the Future
Moonan said university geoscience students everywhere want to ensure they will be suitably qualified and prepared for work when they graduate.
“Geoscience programs at university level are evolving to fit the profile of the Earth scientist of the future, but are they evolving fast or suitably enough? The tools required for the future geoscientist may be different depending on your country, the energy needs and the political mandates,” he noted.
“Geoscience students must appreciate now, if they don’t already, that the roles of geoscientists are still required going forward, but such roles may be more unorthodox than traditional. Teaching programs are evolving, but may not have evolved fast enough everywhere,” Moonan said.
Redfern is co-leader of the UK Centre for Masters’ Training in Energy Transition (Energy-Transition.AC.UK), with a stated goal of promoting “access to resources and training for the next generation of geoscientists and engineers to successfully meet the climate change challenge.”
“We have built a very large collaborative effort of 20-plus UK universities, (with) industry and government, that will develop new master’s programs, disseminate information and resources for teaching, pursue scholarships and act as a forum to develop dialogue with industry and re-engaging with students,” he said.
Virtuality, Value and Interpersonal Vacuum
The third significant challenge for universities, for companies and even for professional societies like AAPG is to cope with a world that has become increasingly virtual in communication and is likely to stay that way, while maximizing opportunities for interaction and interconnectedness.
Again and again, educators say most university students adapted well to online learning last year but badly missed direct interaction with and proximity to teachers and peers.
In industry and academics, “mentorship may be limited in many organizations due to staff reductions, but I still firmly believe some of the best mentorship you can get is from simply chatting with other geoscientists,” Moonan said.
“Such will have to be done in a virtual setting, which has its limitations, but at the same time allow for conversations with persons that you probably may not have ever had the chance to meet in person,” he added.
Moonan currently serves as vice president of AAPG’s Latin America and Caribbean Region, “and as such during this pandemic time period we decided to take the challenge head on and push for many high-impact virtual events,” he said.
The COVID pandemic “encouraged societies like AAPG to hold online courses, research symposia and conferences. As an academic, we always wish we could attend conferences, but travel and accommodation (budgets) may restrict us to just a couple of events per year,” Moonan said.
“I have literally lost count of how many online talks, conferences, virtual field trips and seminars I have attended over the last year. It’s astronomically more, and for a much-reduced cost,” he added.
While Moonan said he grew professionally through virtual conference attendance, in his academic role, he found the lack of access to industry management a drawback.
“Attending conferences isn’t only about listening to talks and attending courses. It is usually where academics and industry folks meet, catch up and network. It is usually also the setting in which there is a lot of discussion of issues and possible solutions between industry and academia,” he noted.
Inviting Industry Investment
What can industry do to support university geoscience education at this point?
First, Redfern said, it needs to deliver a better message to students, then replenish research funding.
“There is an immediate issue of improving the message going out to prospective students, from school to undergraduate level – the message about the future key roles of geoscience for global development and security, positive messages about careers and the energy transition,” he observed.
Also, “I think there is an immediate need to really understand the future skills demand and the job market for geoscientists and engineers. What will the demand be and how does this tally with what universities are delivering?” he said.
At universities, funding for applied research is becoming harder to obtain as the industry has sharply cut budgets, Redfern said.
“It hasn’t totally dried up, but research funds are much harder to obtain and require huge effort to engage with stakeholders, often needing to really demonstrate a short-term deliverable,” he noted.
“In the UK, the number of industry scholarships for master’s places offered by energy companies has dwindled, as budgets are cut year on year. At the same time, costs for graduates have spiraled. To attract the best graduates, industry needs to be investing in these students, sponsoring courses, programs and students,” he said.
“That’s the bottom line. Industry can’t just hope the graduate conveyor belt will just meet demand,” he added.
Moonan said, “it’s interesting to note that many geoscience programs worldwide have had energy transition or alternative energy and Earth science courses or modules for decades. With the push from industry to move to carbon-neutral, funding and support towards these modules are now exponentially increasing.”
“That being said, geoscience programs have worked successfully toward providing research and solutions for industry. Such collaborations need to be fostered in more universities to provide that local solution to that case study,” he said.
Overall, Redfern noted, this is a time for both industry and academia to take action to support the future of geoscience education.
“It’s a wake-up call that’s needed, as these changes are happening very fast, and companies need to deliver more than words. These initiatives need financial support, they need commitments on all sides,” he observed.
“Without this the outlook for geoscience, I fear, is bleak. And that will have a real impact on global energy security going forward,” he said.