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Volume 19 Issue 8 (August 2009)

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Article, pp. 26-28 | Abstract | PDF (577KB)

Groundwork
GROUNDWORK:

Mineral resource geology in academia: An impending crisis?

Murray Hitzman1,*, John Dilles2*, Mark Barton3*, Maeve Boland4*

1 Dept. of Geology and Geological Engineering, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado 80401, USA
2 Dept. of Geosciences, Oregon State University, 104 Wilkinson Hall, Corvallis, Oregon 97331-5506, USA
3 Dept. of Geosciences, University of Arizona, Gould-Simpson Building #77, 1040 E. 4th Street, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA
4 Dept. of Geology and Geological Engineering, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado, 80401-1885, USA

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INTRODUCTION

With continued industrialization in the developing world, prices for metals and other mineral products reached new heights from 2005 to 2008. Though currently at lower levels, prices are likely to rebound sharply when the global economy recovers. A primary driver of high prices was a slowdown in the addition of new supplies via discovery and an inability to expand production from known deposits. Increasing demand also highlighted vulnerabilities in the supply chain of minerals critical for industrial production and national security. Despite these economic and political drivers, the numbers of mineral-resource (“economic”) geologists being trained in the West has decreased significantly over the past three decades. The current downturn is likely to cement this trend.

The decrease in economic geologists is particularly evident in the United States, where long-term trends foreshadow the demise of economic geology education and research in the coming decade. What will happen to U.S. competitiveness, a sustainable supply of mineral resources, and the nation’s ability to engage in scientifically sound planning and land management if economic geology disappears from academia?

Manuscript received 5 November 2008; accepted 3 March 2009.

doi: 10.1130/GSATG33GW.1

* E-mails: , , ,

ECONOMIC GEOLOGY AND THE U.S. ECONOMY

Economic geology encompasses the study of mineral resources. In current usage, “mineral resources” includes metals, industrial minerals, construction aggregates, and uranium but excludes carbon-based energy resources. With regard to economic value, the United States led the world in non-fuel minerals produced and processed in 2007, at US$575 billion (U.S. Geological Survey, 2008). These raw materials supported major industries that accounted for more than US$2 trillion (~15%) of the 2007 U.S. gross domestic product. The United States is the largest single consumer of mineral products and had a net trade deficit of US$43 billion in processed mineral materials in 2007—much smaller than the nation’s oil bill, but still roughly one month’s worth of the total U.S. trade deficit.

The United States is striving for increased energy independence, but it should also be concerned about mineral sustainability, as highlighted by the 2008 National Research Council report, “Minerals, Critical Minerals, and the U.S. Economy.” The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) indicates that the United States imported over 50% of 44 mineral commodities in 2007 and was 100% reliant on imports for 19 mineral commodities. For example, the United States imports all its heavy rare earth elements (HREEs), mainly from China; HREEs are utilized in virtually every computer hard drive.

EVOLUTION OF ECONOMIC GEOLOGY IN THE UNITED STATES

U.S. mineral sustainability can only be achieved if we have the in-country expertise to (1) address critical vulnerabilities in our industrial and military supply chains; (2) help find and responsibly develop, process, and environmentally manage our mineral resources; and (3) accurately assess and contribute to the sustainable development of world mineral supplies.

The field of economic geology developed in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries as an outgrowth of mining geology. Economic geology flourished from the end of World War II into the early 1970s, with major academic programs at such schools as Harvard, Yale, Michigan, and Stanford. The USGS and the U.S. Bureau of Mines conducted substantial government research, while the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research at academic institutions. Several mining companies had major in-house economic geology research groups.

By the mid-1990s, the landscape for economic geology in the United States changed dramatically. A 1994 survey of U.S. and Canadian academia indicated that economic geology faculty were, on average, 50 years old and that many predicted they would not be replaced upon retirement (Einaudi, 1996). There were few hires of young professors, and economic geology was abandoned altogether at many higher-ranked institutions. Mining industry research centers virtually disappeared. Congress abolished the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1995, and economic geology research at the U.S. Geological Survey shrank significantly.

A follow-up survey in 2002 (Table 1; supplementary data1) found that most professors who considered their principal specialty to be economic geology did 75% of their teaching in their secondary fields of geochemistry or petrology/mineralogy and relied principally on government grants for research funding. Graduate student numbers had declined, and 70% of these professors predicted their position would not be filled with an economic geologist when they retired in an average of 15 years.

Table 1

Summary results from 2002 survey of economic geology faculty in U.S. and Canadian universities

CURRENT STATE OF U.S. ACADEMIC ECONOMIC GEOLOGY

A more recent, less comprehensive poll conducted in 2006 indicated that fewer than 70 of the ~100 economic geology professors at U.S. universities remain active in the field. For comparison, the total number of active U.S. economic geology faculty is equivalent to an engineering department at a large state university. In 2006, ~150 graduate students were working in economic geology in the United States. Given average times for degree completion, this indicates that the United States is graduating fewer than 40 graduate-level economic geologists a year. This is probably less than half the number required to offset annual retirements in the domestic mining industry alone, much less in other organizations that require related expertise.

It is clear that the academic base for the field shrank considerably over the past three decades (Fig. 1). Market forces alone may reinvigorate economic geology in the United States, but there was no evidence of this during the four years of high metal prices. Could we be facing the collapse of the science that underpins the long-term supply and stewardship of the mineral resources on which our nation depends? The United States has one of the world’s best mineral endowments and an increasing public and corporate commitment to sustainability; unfortunately, without the necessary expertise, we may be unable to manage and, as appropriate, develop these resources.

Figure 1

Graph illustrating a steady increase in U.S. consumption of raw materials (Wagner, 2002) and a steady decline in economic geologists as a percentage of total geoscience faculty (AGI, 1975–2007).

The demands of the academic environment must be considered if the United States is to reinvigorate economic geology research and education. Increasingly, tenure decisions are based largely on the amount of fully overheaded research funding obtained by individual faculty members. Perhaps more important, decisions about how to fill faculty vacancies are made on the same basis. Given that faculty typically hold tenured positions for decades, loss of expertise cannot be easily or quickly redressed.

Unlike the steadily increasing demand for minerals, NSF research funding for economic geology has stagnated or decreased, perhaps because this research is perceived as applied rather than basic in nature. Federal programs that had provided funding for economic geology projects, such as the Department of Energy’s “Industries of the Future” program, have been cut. USGS funding for academic economic geology research has been limited and unpredictable.

Presently, many of the remaining U.S. academic programs in economic geology receive industry funding. However, most corporate-sponsored research is highly applied, limited in time and scope, and frequently does not include full overhead to the academic institution. Such “underfunded” research projects are rarely viewed favorably by academic administrations struggling to make ends meet. Moreover, industry funding is often directed to other countries, such as Canada and Australia, where matching funds from governments are typically available. Although the mining industry can help by increasing research funding, it might be more effective for it to support the restoration of dedicated federal funding, because, in the long run, federal funding directly sustains most academic research, including those fields with direct societal applications, whether biomedicine or mineral resources sustainability.

THE FUTURE

There is no consensus among federal and state agencies, the mining industry, and the U.S. academic community regarding the importance of economic geology to future U.S. competitiveness. Without such consensus—followed by action—the current downward spiral in U.S. academic economic geology will continue, with the near-term loss of the expertise essential to the discovery, utilization, and management of mineral resources.

We invite the minerals industry, government, and institutions with a stake in mineral resources to initiate a dialogue and develop a new strategy, perhaps mediated by the National Research Council, to take U.S. academic economic geology successfully into the twenty-first century.

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REFERENCES CITED

  1. American Geological Institute (AGI), 1975–2007, Directory of Geoscience Departments, 14th–45th editions: Alexandria, Virginia, American Geological Institute.
  2. Einaudi, M.T., 1996, The future of economic geology in academia, in Brimhall, G.H., and Gustafson, L.B., eds., Maintaining compatibility of mining and the environment: Proceedings of a symposium in honor of Charles Meyer (1915–1987): Littleton, Colorado, USA, Society of Economic Geologists, p.46–59.
  3. National Research Council, 2008, Minerals, critical minerals, and the U.S. economy: Washington, D.C., The National Academies Press, 245p.
  4. U.S. Geological Survey Minerals Information Team, 2008, Mining review: Minerals Engineering, v.60, no.5, p.31–43.
  5. Wagner, L.A., 2002, Materials in the Economy—Material Flows, Scarcity, and the Environment: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1221, 29p. Manuscript received 5 November 2008; accepted 3 March 2009.

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