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Online Special - NS Geophysics Meeting, Athens 2014

lkjConferences – a two-way street

  • Project: Attendance to Near Surface Geoscience 2014, Athens, Greece (14–18 September 2014)
  • Amount received £2000

Jim Whiteley (right, in more accustomed fieldwork mode) attended an international conference with the support of the Society’s Distinguished Geologists Memorial Trust (see Soapbox).  He describes his experiences here.

The EAGE’s Near Surface Geoscience event is a highlight in the calendars of academics, practitioners and exhibitors in the general field of near-surface geophysics across Europe and the rest of the world.  The annual NSG event is an opportunity for researchers to present and discuss the progression of the study of geophysics (and related fields), and for those who use geophysics in a commercial capacity to see where the future is headed for their field.  As someone who falls into the latter category, it was with a great deal of excitement that I headed to Greece in September 2014 to attend my first Near Surface Geoscience conference.

Conferences are traditionally platforms for hearing and learning about the latest research in a particular field.  But do commercial end-users have a responsibility to be active, rather than passive, at such events?  Should we be informing, as well as learning from, what researchers and academics have to say?   

Particularly in the field of near-surface geophysics, the answer should be a resounding ‘yes’, and it could even be suggested that one of the most important aspects of the conference may be the discussion that occurs between these two groups; a reciprocal dialogue that ultimately informs one where the other is headed.

Geoscience research as a whole has been hard hit by funding cuts in recent years, and coupled with the natural predisposition of private-company sponsored research to fund potentially profitable projects, near-surface geophysics is often left on the back-burner.  From a pragmatic standpoint this makes good fiscal sense; money, after all, follows money.  But it has serious implications for the commercial application of near-surface geophysics, an industry that is often noted for its niche and fragmented nature.  As Andrew McBarnet summed up nicely in his Crosstalk article in EAGE’s First Break:

“Near surface geoscience personnel are typically found to be scattered in small companies and consultancies.  Their services do not demand the major industrial scale investment in equipment and staff needed for the acquisition, processing and interpretation of oil and gas land and marine seismic surveys.  This obviously puts the near surface world at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting the best and the brightest young professional recruits…”

 (First Break, Vol 32, Issue 8, p37, 2014)

Before the final sentence of that quote sends some spiralling into a rage, it’s worth pointing out that the author himself goes on to note that it is, of course, not applicable in every case.  The non-corporate and often undefinable (and therefore ever-changing) nature of near-surface geophysics (the definition of which was even under scrutiny at NSG 2014, and is a subject for another, much longer report) may be exactly the thing that draws in new recruits to this grassroots industry. 

Therein lies part of the vibrancy and enthusiasm surrounding an event like NSG in Athens: that often, it is not ‘Big Money’ that is informing the direction of research in geophysics, but often the feedback of practitioners to researchers on the applicability and success of each other’s endeavours.  The process of research, development, testing, refinement and ultimately application is a slow one, and one which reinforces the need for a large scale annual meeting of minds such as NSG.  Not uncommonly, these discrete groups of researchers and practitioners are, in fact, not discrete groups, but perhaps people working in the same institution or individuals with feet in both camps.  This arguably makes it all the more important for them to have a place to share their ideas, outside of their normal working environment.

It is a trait that is perhaps not unique to the near-surface geophysics community, but one which perceivably pervades an event like NSG.  There are not many disciplines in which young practitioners are able to meet and talk to the people or person who developed the original incarnation of the equipment, or the software, or perhaps even the very methodology that is now a mainstay of their careers.

Attending NSG, as someone who has graduated within the past five years and has been working in industry since, was a refreshing reminder of the excitement of research, and the need for an analytical and scientific approach to many of the problems that can be solved by near-surface geophysics.  Among the presentations and papers on the latest developments in geophysics, the recognised need for positive promotion and clear communication of the successful applicability of techniques to wider geoscience industries was constant.  The near-surface geophysics community is one that is sometimes marginalised and overshadowed to some extent by its larger, deeper, hydrocarbon- and mineral-based cousins, but it is more determined because of it.

Industry, however, suffers similar issues to academia.  Referring back to Andrew McBarnet’s article, investment in near-surface geophysics is far from extensive.  For a company like the one for which I work, which functions solely on the provision of near-surface geophysical services, the primary focus is on delivering an applicable methodology to achieve value-added results, a service ultimately sold as a product; a product that will prove useful enough to be called upon in future projects.  Too often in the UK, the amount spent on initial ground investigations prior to the undertaking of large scale development projects amounts to a tiny percentage of the total budget of the project; trying to maintain an economically viable service in these conditions is never easy, and the conditions call for constant innovation, research and development. 

Of course, these things are an integral and natural part of a small company operating in a niche market, but their applications are fragmentary, and rarely have an impact beyond improving the functioning of the company.  For people working in such environments, the opportunity to attend events such as NSG is an affluent luxury, and one that seldom presents itself without external help.  Nonetheless, it is an opportunity that should be sought as often as possible by practitioners, as the experiences of people working in highly specialised industries can be applicable and useful to those working in highly specialised research.

Jim Whiteley (Geophysicist, TerraDat)