Update on NERC’s oil and gas centre

Last summer, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), our official body for environmental science, issued a call for expressions of interest to run a new Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas research.

CDTs are important for building capacity in particular strategic areas for science and engineering. They offer space to fund research in a particular area – simply because you have the labour of the PhD students working on targeted research projects – but they also help researchers network and build collaborations for further work, and train people to go on to further careers in the area.  PhD students are useful things. They also deserve decent training and career development, which CDTs, done well, can offer. Several research councils have moved to this model, although some feel it’s a way of running cuts and a narrowing of research options under the banner of grand visions and career development for young scientists.

It’s interesting that, considering NERC’s number one strategic goal is “enabling society to respond urgently to global climate change”, that they’d lead their adoption of this slightly-controversial policy with a centre on oil and gas. As I wrote in a post for the Greenpeace Energy Desk last summer, it’d be simplistic to say they are using public money to run PhDs in fracking, but they are kind of using public money to do PhDs in fracking.

In response, Iain Gillespie, NERC’s director of science, told Research Fortnight in October that “Oil and gas are inevitably going to provide strong elements of our energy future for some years to come [...] There is a very clear need for us to apply environmental science in this space, and in not doing so we could arguably be accused of being irresponsible” which the magazine headlined as “NERC claims it can make oil industry greener”.

But there is a big difference in research exploring the environmental impact and regulation of oil and gas extraction and finding new ways to extract it. The research themes set by the call always seemed to be weighted to the latter.

Now larger details have been released it seems this runs through to specific projects on offer too. There are a few on environmental impact, but only a few. If you do want to do a government-funded PhD in fracking, there are possibilities at Durham, Manchester and Oxford, to name just three. It’s also worth having a look at the industrial sponsors of the Herriot Watt Institute of Petroleum Engineering, where the centre is based.

Back in October, Research Fortnight also spoke to Andrew Watkinson, former director of the Living With Environmental Change programme, who argued NERC were “obviously responding to the call from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.” Similarly, ex Defra chief sci adviser, Bob Watson asked “What is the role of government funding to stimulate the private sector? [...] Why does it need government money if it is really going to improve profitability?”

Why indeed?


– Alice Bell

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