Why are collaborations between universities and industry so important?
7 March 2011
Reporter speaks to Professor Al Fraser, EGI Chair in Petroleum Geoscience (Earth Science and Engineering), who has spent 30 years working as an exploration geologist for BP before joining the College last year.
“I’ve always felt that there is a wonderful, symbiotic relationship between academia and industry and that they are natural collaborators. Big companies have easy access to large budgets and datasets, and academics have the expertise and time to do research thoroughly and creatively – it makes sense to work together.
I was lucky enough to go straight into a job with BP after I graduated with a degree in geology from the University of Edinburgh in 1977. The key aim of my role was to seek out oil in petroleum basins around the world and, as a result, I got the opportunity to travel and see some amazing geology in places such as the Arctic, China and the Middle East.
Throughout my career, I was always more passionate about geology than the commercial side of the business, and I actively kept ties with people in the academic world and looked for ways to collaborate with universities.
Companies can get very introverted and often arrogant about their models. I found it rewarding to develop ideas and challenge industry paradigms with academics and students. These relationships often led to innovative solutions to long-term problems while also helping with immediate concerns of locating gas and oil.
Research collaborations are also great for helping students gain direct contacts in the industry”
One of the first collaborations I was involved in was when I was working on a project focused on the North Sea in the early 1990s, a time when oil companies were unsure whether there was any further oil left in the area. By collaborating with academics at the Universities of Edinburgh and Manchester, who specialised in rocks in the North Sea, we were able to test and improve our models, and shed new light on the problem.
The researchers we collaborated with got the opportunity to use the North Sea as an immense laboratory for testing geological ideas and models. A paper was published as a result of one project co-authored by Professor John Underhill from the University of Edinburgh and Dr Mark Parkinson who worked in my exploration team in Glasgow. The paper described the discovery of a large thermal dome in the central North Sea, which had lots of implications for the petroleum geology of the area. These findings and others led BP to withdraw its exploration in the North Sea, and saved the company significant sums of money, which would otherwise have been spent on drilling dry wells.
Solving global problems
Today the oil industry is facing some major global challenges, in particular, the depleting oil and gas supplies, and the increasing demand from developing countries like China, India, Russia and Brazil. A question that concerns us all is where the next major source of oil and gas will be. My view is the Arctic but the exploitation of resources in this region will be highly controversial. Industry, in partnership with governments, will have to protect the interests of the indigenous populations and demonstrate that they can conduct operations safely in the harsh and fragile arctic environment.
I believe geologists can play a huge role in helping to come up with possible solutions and universities will be able to access funding to develop new research in areas of mutual benefit.
Opportunities for students
As well as all the other benefits I’ve discussed, research collaborations are also great for helping students gain direct contacts in the industry – which is increasingly important in this competitive market.
One of the reasons I decided to leave BP last year and return to academia was that I was attracted to Imperial by the considerable reputation of the MSc in Petroleum Geoscience. The course is really applied and is taught by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable mix of Imperial staff and industry guests. Importantly, there are opportunities for students to work together on real problems using data generously provided by oil companies.
As in my previous role, part of my job at the College is to stimulate collaborations between academia and industry but this time I’m on the other side of the fence. I actively encourage students to apply for internships to help them understand the industry before they graduate and get ahead of the game.
I’d really like to see even more industrial partners joining up in research collaborations with Imperial and look forward to building more bridges.”
—Emily Ross , Communications and Development