The shortage of geologists that’s impacting the mining industry is set to get worse as universities cut geoscience courses.
The shortage of geologists that has bedeviled the Australian mining industry for several years is only set to get worse as universities across the country cancel the very courses that provide the profession’s pipeline of talent.
A major report from science news website Eos reveals the extent to which universities are dropping geoscience courses, citing Macquarie University’s decision to completely cut its School of Earth and Planetary Science, the Australian National University’s radical downsizing of its Research School of Earth Sciences, and the University of Newcastle’s decision to drop its geology major completely.
Perhaps these decisions are no surprise, given the Federal Government’s decision in 2020 to cut funding for earth and environmental science courses by 29%. That put geoscience departments firmly on the chopping block, particularly at a time when universities are scratching around for savings and cuts due to the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The kids just don’t want to become geologists any more
But the decision could also have been influenced by a major decline in enrolments in geoscience majors, both across Australia and internationally. In Australia, enrolments have been dropping rapidly since 2017.
While the Eos report points out that Western Australia is starting to see a bounce back in geoscience enrolments, particularly since the mining industry started its uptick a few years ago, “student numbers in south-eastern geoscience departments have not rebounded sufficiently to ensure their viability”.
The flow-on effects of these department closures, the budget cuts and the lack of enrolments will be felt in the years ahead in a mining industry that’s already struggling to find the number of geologists it needs. With only around 2000 geoscience enrolments a year in Australia, the outlook for mining and exploration companies desperately in need of qualified geologists is grim.
The problem, according to Eos, could actually be that young people think studying geology limits them to a career in mining, “an industry they understand to be detrimental to the environment”.
How to fix mining’s ever-shrinking pipeline of geology talent
So, what to do about it? Eos suggests starting with a makeover of the mining industry’s reputation—at least in states where mining isn’t seen as net positive, in the way it is in Western Australia.
“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,” the report authors state.
“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.”
Ethics and earth science
The report authors said 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”.
It’s all about rebranding the discipline for a new generation—because if we don’t, and if we can’t make geoscience attractive, the struggle to find geologists isn’t going to go away.
“Meeting the geoscience labour force needs of national and global communities must become a strategic imperative for our universities,” the report concludes.
That won’t happen just by wishing for it. Perhaps it’s time for a coordinated industry approach to securing the pipeline of geologists and geoscientific talent we need?