Past Messages


Bob Loucks, Winter 2005

loucksIn this message I would like to present some of my personal thoughts on research in the geosciences. This is obviously an important topic to me as this is the way I have earned my living for the past 30 years. Currently, I am a Senior Research Scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology at The University of Texas at Austin. I am in research for two main reasons: First, I think research is important to the geosciences from both an academic and a technological point of view. Second, I find research stimulating and fun. I will dwell on the first reason because I understand my research money should serve a purpose other than keeping me in one of the world's greatest jobs.

Research is important to industry and society. Many benefits of research are common to both groups. In the past, many large energy companies had research labs that preformed both basic research and proprietary technical service tasks. A few companies still have groups that undertake technical service tasks, but basic research is close to nil. An interesting question to ask is whether basic research was important some years ago and not now. Why would it not be important today to still plunge into basic questions that could lead to new understanding and new tools to search for energy or other geologic-related benefits? What I think we all understand is that most organizations that can contribute money to research have become very bottom line oriented. This includes both industry and government sources of funding.

Large corporations are still strongly supporting research outside their companies with the premise that the research contributes directly to the exploration or production problems they face. I guess this is fair, as they are supporting a number of excellent company consortia such as those we have at the Bureau of Economic Geology. Even with this support, I wish that they could make funds available for basic research that may not have a direct impact on the bottom line. An example of an interesting (unfunded) research direction is being carried out by Dr. Robert Folk at The University of Texas at Austin on the role of nannobacteria in mineral formation and diagenesis. His effort may not find any hydrocarbons in the immediate future, but it could lead to a totally new direction in understanding the evolution of pore development if these nannocreatures end up controlling many of the diagenetic reactions we have trouble understanding.

Actually, smaller companies may even benefit more from public research than larger companies, but they often feel that they can't afford to contribute. Small grants, however, are still important resources, especially if the money is contributed to the university as a gift, because gifts commonly have no overhead attached to the funds. The money can go directly to researchers, who can use it to chase ideas that may not be promoted as larger projects. What I am saying here is that all of industry should try to keep research in the geosciences moving forward. Each company can do its share accordingly.

Another important point is that results from these projects commonly end up being presented as talks at conferences or as papers in professional journals. Look at JSR, AAPG, or GCAGS volumes, and note how many new ideas in these papers came from funded research. It is not uncommon for an institution such as the Bureau of Economic Geology to be very well represented at regional, national, and international meetings. These presentations and papers reflect a high investment of funds from different organizations. We have to invest a large amount of time to receive grants for these projects. It sure would be nice if more money were made available without the large amount of time and energy that must be expended to raise the funds.

With this long introduction, I would like just to touch on a number of isolated points relative to research. These points are in no particular order of importance:

  1. I would like to see our government at the national level not only recognize the importance of research in the geosciences, but increase the amount of money that is allotted to this research. Unfortunately, the amount of funds appears to be going down instead of up. Where else can high-cost projects such as deep-earth drilling or deep-ocean research come from?

  2. State governments should allocate more money toward geoscience research in their own states. The geology of every state should be well mapped and environmental and economic resources should be well inventoried. Many geoscience research projects can actually return money to the state through increased royalties or through various taxes. The State of Texas has been sponsoring a program where money is provided to help owners of State Land leases find and recover more hydrocarbons. The State of Texas invested approximately one million dollars over a two-year period. The return on the investment was 27 times the investment!

  3. I would like to see energy companies provide funds to public research groups for basic research where no products need to be defined. This money could go to young creative geoscientists with the only requirement being that they publish results. The money could also support established researchers who have worked hard to get soft money for designated projects, but who never find the money for pet projects that just don't seem to have an economic value. With a little money and trust, these pet projects just may lead somewhere.

  4. Companies could also help by ensuring that public research groups have the latest equipment and the money to keep it running. Having students trained on cutting-edge equipment would benefit future employers. They would be hiring new employees having the most advanced skills.

  5. Companies might want to consider sabbaticals where they send their seasoned employees (and associated funding) to an established research group. People on sabbaticals could work with their peers on research topics that would benefit their company. When the employees return to work, the new knowledge and skills would come back with them. This would have the double benefit of enhanced motivation for the employee and a direct return of knowledge to the company.

  6. Companies of all sizes should suggest research topics that they think are valuable. It is important to know as a researcher in a public institution what is needed in industry. Many of us have worked in industry and have a good idea of which major research directions are fruitful, but having the publicized support of industry can make it easier to acquire funds.

  7. If I were the CEO of a corporation, I would ensure that research in the geosciences were a high priority and strongly supported by my company. I would do this because I see tremendous value in the continual growth of knowledge in the geosciences. Also, I see the value of keeping the geoscience field an exciting area of study and research so that young candidates continue to choose geoscience as their profession.

I need to add that I am thankful to industry for their support for several research venues, including national and local geoscience meetings, special publications, industrial associate research groups, summer student employment, and contribution of software. Even during lean times, industry has been a friend to the research community.

I would hope that with the current great health of our petroleum industry, we would see not just continued financial support, but an increase in financial support to geoscience research. Obviously some of this research should be directed toward increasing knowledge directly applicable to finding oil and gas, but some of it should be "fun" money that can be spent on research ideas that may not immediately connect to the bottom line. Unrestricted imagination is an important element that can lead to new concepts.