Rare minerals and community cohesion

Posted by Kristine Pommert

Before I say anything else about the British Geological Survey, I have to declare an interest: I like them. Not just because what they do is intrinsically interesting, which it is; and not just because they’re a good bunch of people to work with, either.

The added attraction is what you walk into when you enter their headquarters at Keyworth near Nottingham: an Aladdin’s cave of a shop, featuring intriguing geological books and maps and – best of all – a wealth of covetable stones and minerals, with rows of boxes proffering colourful samples from agate to (if my memory serves me right) zebra jasper. And don’t get me started on those glass cases holding beautiful pendants with semi-precious stones, many far superior to what you find in regular jeweller’s shops.

But on Bulletin’s most recent visit, once I’d torn myself away from these distractions, we discovered things which were even more fascinating: a kaleidoscope of the impacts BGS researchers are achieving in the real world. In a series of coaching conversations, we worked with research teams from different areas to discuss their planned impact case studies for the next NERC evaluation exercise.

The range of where and how BGS researchers are achieving impact is impressive: among the projects that have particularly stuck in my mind is one exploring the sub-surface of some of Europe’s major cities, providing governments and councils with a wealth of useful data for urban planning and regeneration purposes – even down to new options for harnessing heat from abandoned mines.

Another project examines the effects of fracking on groundwater, shedding light on an important aspect of a highly emotive public debate. Yet another explores the future availability of rare metals needed for digital and low-carbon energy technologies, allowing governments and industry better resource planning and all of us a better understanding of how our own consumption habits may impact finite resources.  

And then there are the kinds of impacts you would never expect from geological research: such as the building of bridges between Protestants and Catholics from both sides of the border in Ireland through geological tourism projects. Perhaps the most spectacular of these projects is the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark near Enniskillen, which takes visitors through a natural underworld with stunningly beautiful cave formations – in the process uniting the two communities through a common interest in an exceptional feature of their natural environment.

What makes coaching conversations such a valuable tool for developing impact case studies is that as often as not, new impacts emerge which no-one has thought of. In a discussion on landslide research, it came to light that fire services had changed their professional practice in direct response to the research findings: clear impact, but one which the case study author had not thought to include in her draft.  

For me as Bulletin’s training lead, the two days’ of sessions at BGS were also highly satisfying for another reason: the case study drafts I was shown demonstrated very clearly that the impact training I had run there in 2014 had borne fruit. Almost all of the case study authors began their description of the underpinning research with a clear and convincing outline of the “real world” context that made their research relevant and desirable; and most had succeeded in choosing a manageable scope for their impact cases.

There are, of course, considerable imponderables surrounding the next NERC evaluation exercise. Although the Nurse review has restored confidence in that NERC and the six other research councils will continue to exist (albeit under a different umbrella), we are still waiting to find out when the next evaluation will take place, and what exactly the rules will be.

Yet, as in the higher education sector, there is little doubt that impact will play a part. BGS research teams are doing well to start preparing their impact cases now. Many will need considerable development over time, but some solid groundwork has been laid.

So all in all, our visit to Keyworth felt eminently worthwhile. And who knows, I might yet find one of those beautiful pendants from that glass case in my Christmas stocking. At least I’ve encouraged my husband to pay a visit to the BGS shop. 

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