Research intelligence: Change of climate

A consultation aims to ensure that postgrads in environmental science are ready for the future. Zoë Corbyn reports

December 3, 2009

The environmental-science postgraduates of the future will tackle some of the world's most pressing problems, from natural disasters to climate change. So what knowledge and technical knowhow will best prepare them for the challenge?

A new consultation aims to ensure that PhD and masters students are equipped with the right mix of skills to take environmental science forward and meet the needs of public- and private-sector employers.

Launched by the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) last week, it comes amid a renewed focus on postgraduate provision. A wider review of the UK's postgraduate courses is being conducted by Adrian Smith, director-general of science and research at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Both will examine whether postgraduate courses could better respond to the needs of business, or do more to help students to progress in employment and further study.

Some argue that it is better to leave the academy to respond to the market. However, others believe that a hands-off approach leaves "skills gaps" that industry struggles to fill.

In Nerc's review, more than 500 organisations, including key industry players British Water, National Power and the drug company AstraZeneca, will be solicited for their views. "We need a better idea about what technical skills postgraduates at all levels are likely to need in the future to meet the fast-changing environmental-sciences agenda," said Jonathan Bates, head of people and skills at Nerc, which is undertaking its consultation with the Environmental Research Funders' Forum, the main public-sector sponsor of environmental research in the UK.

It marks the first time that skills gaps in the field have been analysed, Mr Bates added.

The focus will be on identifying the "hard skills" postgraduates need to work in the sector, rather than "soft" or transferable skills, such as those related to team-working.

Mr Bates said the skills shortages that were raised "time and time again" included a lack of ecologists with advanced numerical skills, and complaints that there were too few environmental scientists with physics or chemistry backgrounds.

There was also a shortage of experts in computer modelling and those who could work on "solutions to climate change, as opposed to predicting it", he added.

Meanwhile, the water industry had particular concerns that there were not enough postgraduates to deal with water and flood management, Mr Bates explained.

The results will help inform how Nerc invests more than £30 million per year in postgraduate places. Eighty per cent of this money flows to universities in the form of a block grant to fund masters and PhD places. Until now, institutions have been relatively free to dispense the cash according to their own research priorities. In future, however, it is likely that this funding will be given more direction, Mr Bates said.

"What we would like to do is guide departments bidding for PhD and masters courses as to the type of skills or research we would like to see," he said.

As part of a new training strategy, Nerc will seek to provide stronger direction in about half of its postdoctoral block grant funding.

"Frankly, there has to be a greater guided element if we are to meet the needs of the sector," he said. "There are some areas where there is concern that we are not getting people with the right skills out, or they are not working in the sector."

Guiding the consultation is a draft skills framework, outlining eight areas critical to the environmental sector. These range from tackling climate change to the sustainable use of natural resources and environmental health. It examines the challenges in each area and proposes the postgraduate skills that are required to address them.

A review group of about 50 organisations will consider the responses to the consultation and produce a report.

"Scientists are reluctant to look into the future and predict what skills are needed. But we do have some very big issues in the environmental-science sector, and if we don't have the people to address them, they are going to be left unanswered," Mr Bates added.

However, Janet Metcalfe, chair and head of Vitae, the national organisation for the development of doctoral researchers and university research staff, stressed the importance of transferable skills.

"It's about developing the researcher alongside the production of the thesis," she said, adding that this would form the backbone of Vitae's response to the BIS consultation. It closes on 18 December. The Nerc consultation closes on 8 January.

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