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Growth in mining hampered by a lack of geoscientists

By Gregory Webb - posted Thursday, 7 December 2006

Australia is often called the “Lucky Country,” and it is not just a good slogan, it is true. Australia is one of the last nations on earth where low population and abundant natural resources can support a western, resource-dependent lifestyle - the type to which we have become accustomed - and still protect our natural environment by allowing future development to be carried out in a sustainable way. However, our “sustainable” future is in jeopardy.

While everyone is familiar with the current skills crisis - there are too few tradesmen, skilled labourers, nurses, and so on - few people outside of the geoscience industries have recognised the severe shortage of university-trained professionals in those industries. Australian universities currently are not producing enough geoscience professionals to meet demand by employers.

And now, more ominously, there is an increasing shortfall in academic geoscientists at Australia’s universities, and that shortfall directly jeopardises our ability to train the future geoscientists that Australia requires. Under the current government university funding model, low student numbers in the geosciences are causing the down-sizing and or closure of geoscience departments, so drastically limiting the breadth of geoscience expertise and experience available in Australia’s university sector.


If the downward trend continues, it may become impossible to meet Australia’s future educational, training and professional needs in this critical area.

So, why should we be worried? Geoscience is fundamentally important to Australia’s future in three ways:

  1. geological resources drive a large percentage of the nation’s economy;
  2. sustainable development, encompassing environmental protection, depends heavily upon geoscience; and
  3. geoscientists produce most of the data that are required to understand climate change.

The Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics reports that export earnings from mineral and energy resources in 2005-2006 were more than $90 billion and forecasts that those earnings will rise to $110 billion in 2006-2007. By comparison, farm commodities exports are forecast at $29.3 billion in 2006-2007.

The minerals and energy exploration industries (or extractive industries) that drive this huge part of the nation’s economy depend on professional geoscientists, both geologists and engineers. In addition to export earnings, the extractive industries provide direct tax and royalties to state and federal treasuries.

For example, the Queensland Resources Council estimates that Queensland’s extractive industries will contribute more than $1.5 billion in direct royalties to the state government next year.


Other commonly overlooked benefits include direct contributions to infrastructure, such as roads, ports and rail systems, which are heavily dependent on users’ fees from extractive industries; and it is worthy of note that extractive industries are particularly important in rural and regional Australia. In many cases these industries are responsible for a large percentage of regional economic development and infrastructure: entire cities in rural Australia owe their existence to the extractive industries.

But it is not all about economics. Although geoscience is commonly linked solely with the extractive industries, it is in fact a highly diverse field, encompassing the core disciplines in areas such as hydrology (water supply and quality), catchment and waterways management, mine remediation, hazard analysis (earthquakes, tsunamis, floods), geotechnical analysis for construction, soil conservation, inland salinity, coastal erosion, acid sulphate soils, and many others.

It is geoscientists who are playing the lead roles in research to understand our changing climate. The record of climate change over the last million years is contained in sediments from lakes and the deep ocean, corals from the Great Barrier Reef, stalagmites from caves, and ice cores from glaciers; all are studied by geoscientists.

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First published in The Australian on November 22, 2006.

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About the Author

Gregory Webb is a senior lecturer and researcher with the Queensland University of Technology's school of natural resource sciences.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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