Tag Archives: Oxford

Who should set the research agenda in Universities?

9 May

Universities are complex, organic institutions. Their heart is the academic hub of scholarship and research, sustained  by the ever-changing life-blood of students who come through to learn, to challenge, to grow, and ultimately to leave,  having left their mark on those who have taught them. The excitement of working in a University environment is the daily experience of being challenged to think in new ways to solve old problems. Teaching  forces you to develop a perspective on problems in a way that then allows you to explain them to students. In turn, this can bring new clarity to your research, giving you new ways to come at the problem, and new ways of seeing things. And then, of course, that new understanding feeds back into the teaching.

To support all of this activity, though, requires money, and a lot of it. Money for people, for buildings, and for the resources that underpin scholarship. To give an idea of scale, Oxford University receives about £1000 M in income every year. Of this billion pounds, less than 20% comes from student fees, while over £400 M arrives in external grants and contracts from research sponsors. Most of this money for research comes in the form of project grants: funding solicited by an investigator, or group of investigators, to solve a problem that they have defined. But of course, there is never enough project grant income to go around. Success rates for applications to the major funding bodies (research councils, charities) are often 20% or lower and, increasingly, it is difficult to find the funding  to replace, overhaul, or even just to maintain the essential services and facilities that everyone relies on to keep the research flowing. With this as a backdrop, and with the global competition for the best scholars and researchers, it is perhaps only natural for Universities to look to diversify their research income.

In the field of science, there is a great deal of high quality research that goes on that is pushing entirely at the ‘blue skies’ frontiers of knowledge. This curiosity-driven research is, perhaps, most likely to be funded by research councils or charities. But scientific research has also always been about solving problems, and about equipping people with the intellectual and other skills to solve ‘real world’ problems. Recent years have seen a huge growth in activities related to identifying and understanding the drivers behind global environmental change. And currently, there are great efforts to understand and to tackle the leading problems that will define the next twenty to thirty years of environmental research: the future of food, of energy, of biodiversity, and natural resources. So who should set the research agenda in this area? And should there be areas that are out of bounds? There are no easy answers, but would it be appropriate for students of Earth Sciences not to explore fully the questions of how natural resources form? Or not to be exposed to the global challenges of how to meet the unsustainable but growing demands for energy and materials that are still being driven by consumption in the developed world? At the heart of it, research in Universities remains in the hands of the researchers. It is they who set the research agenda, and find pathways to the solutions. If Universities have become more effective at facilitating researchers to seek external funding to support their research, is this necessarily a bad thing?

Today sees the formal opening, in Oxford, of the Shell Geoscience Laboratory. This partnership provides £5.9M funding for a small number of staff (a Professorship, and several post-doctoral researchers and graduate research students), and some core laboratory equipment. The sum of money involved (equivalent to ca. £1M/yr over about 5 years) is, indeed, significant in the context of a research group – but is both a tiny proportion of Oxford’s annual research income (< 0.25%), and a small fraction of current external funding received by Oxford for studies into Earth, the Environment and the Climate System: Oxford’s current research portfolio from the Natural Environment Research Council currently exceeds £60 M. This does not look like funding that is buying ‘influence over the research agenda‘.

If we wish to demand greater social responsibility from the major global institutions, would it not be better to focus, as ShareAction are doing, on the rather more significant interests that Universities in general, and the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) Pension Fund in particular, hold through their investment portfolios?  In 2012, USS alone held investments of £900 M in the ‘hydrocarbon’ sector, and over £500 M in the minerals and mining sectors. Wisely used, that looks like a lot of leverage.

Santiaguito Volcano: Ninety Years and Counting.

3 Dec

Santiaguito volcano, Guatemala, burst into life in 1922 and is now the second longest continuing eruption. It has outlasted both Stromboli (Italy) and Sangay (Ecuador), both erupting since 1934, and is only outdone by Yasur (Vanuatu), which has been erupting at least since 1774, when first visited by Captain Cook.

These long-lived eruptions give us an unusual opportunity to use the slowly-extruded products to peer deep into the magma plumbing system. Santiaguito itself is now a rubbly complex of blocky lavas and domes that nestle in the crater formed by the explosive destruction of Santa Maria volcano, Guatemala, in 1902, in one of the largest eruptions of the last century.

View of the lava domes of Santiaguito volcano, from the flanks of Santa Maria, Guatemala

View of the lava domes of Santiaguito volcano, from the flanks of Santa Maria, Guatemala

After a violent beginning, Santiaguito has grown slowly (rather less than 1 cubic metre of lava/second) and in pulses for the past 90 years. Bill Rose, who has worked on Santiaguito since the early 1970’s, has documented this history very nicely. For many years, Santiaguito has been a magnet for geophysical and remote-sensing field campaigns, both because of its rather regular ash and gas explosions, and the fact that it is relatively accessible and very closely monitored by INSIVUMEH.  Rather less obligingly, though, the volcano is often cloud-bound by mid-morning, at least during the dry season, when moist westerly winds roll in from the Pacific.


Explanatory poster, showing the fuming dome of Santiaguito sitting in the scar of the 1902 eruption crater, Santa Maria.

While Santiaguito has only a very slow growth rate, at the lower end of what is typical of actively-extruding domes, it poses major hazards to a number of local communities.

View of the Caliente dome, Santiaguito volcano, Guatemala

View of the Caliente dome, Santiaguito volcano, Guatemala

Lahars are common in the rainy season, and transport the accumulated loose talus from the flanks of the domes downstream, intermittently causing severe damage. Ash deposition can cause disruption to a wider community, extending both to the Fincas and cloud-forest coffee plantations or, more rarely, to agricultural and urban centres further afield, such as Xela (Quetzaltenango).

This way please.. coffee-bean receptor at Finca el Faro, on the flanks of Santa Maria volcano, Guatemala.

This way please.. coffee-bean receptor at Finca el Faro, on the flanks of Santa Maria volcano, Guatemala.

Receny years have seen several episodes of elevated activity at the volcano, and in this past week, Santiaguito has experienced another such phase. As reports from CONRED make clear, this elevated activity culminated in a large-scale slope failure from the active dome, Caliente, triggering pyroclastic flows and lofting ash plumes high into the atmosphere. The rainy-season legacy of these events will most likely be more lahars, as drainages now charged with debris become unclogged and rapidly incised.

Typical deeply-incised drainage channel, high up on slopes of Santiaguito, with recent ash fall on the vegetation.

Typical deeply-incised drainage channel, high up on slopes of Santiaguito, with recent ash fall on the vegetation.

My own interest in Santiaguito is in the long-term story of the volcanic plumbing system recorded in the rocks that have been progressively removed from the conduit during the eruptions of the past 90 years. Jeannie Scott has recently completed a study of this for her PhD (funded by NERC), working on samples that span much of the eruption history. The remarkable feature is the surprisingly simple story that emerges.  The 1902 eruption evacuated a large volume of dacite magma with a silica content of about 66 wt%. The 1922 eruption appears to have begun by emptying what was left behind of this pool of melt from 1902, and since then the volcano has been erupting increasingly silica-poor magmas, presumably tapping deeper into the plumbing system. The latest lavas analysed (from 2002) have about 62% SiO2. These observations suggest that future lavas may continue to get progressively more silica-poor; as they do so, they may also get warmer and a little less viscous, depending on conditions at depth. Unfortunately, in the process of slow extrusion, the lavas lose much of their dissolved gas, crystallise and eventually quench, so that it is quite a challenge to track back to the ‘original’ conditions under which the magmas were stored. This still leaves several unresolved puzzles: how is it that the conduit system can remain open, allowing magma to continue to leak out to the surface? And what is it that drives the long-term pulses of eruptive activity?  Answers to these questions will probably emerge once we have a better understanding of the full spectrum of long-lived dome-forming eruptions at andesitic volcanoes, such as those at Soufriere Hills (Montserrat), Colima (Mexico) and Merapi (Indonesia).

Links to further reading:

JAJ Scott et al., 2013, Geochemistry and evolution of the Santiaguito volcanic dome complex, Guatemala, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 252, 92-107.

JAJ Scott et al., 2012, The magmatic plumbing system beneath Santiaguito volcano, Guatemala, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 237–238, 54–68.

Update: February 2013.

Jeannie Scott has now written and made freely available a colour booklet describing Santiaguito volcano and its activity, and a poster summarising recent work on the volcano.

An update on Santorini

13 Sep

As you may have heard by now, Santorini volcano has recently been showing some unrest. Of course, it has only just come to the attention of the media, some of which have taken things a little further than can be justified.  But for those of us involved in the work, this is a story which has taken rather longer to piece together.

In my own case, the story started 26 years ago this week, when I first stepped onto Santorini during the first few days of my PhD research. Santorini was hot, dusty and felt rather exotic as it was my first taste of Greece. These steps launched me into my research career in volcanology and culminated, as I thought at the time, with the publication of the ‘Santorini Memoir‘, which summarised our reconstruction of the volcanic history of the islands over the past 600,000 years or so. But Santorini is such an iconic place to visit, and the geology is just so well laid out, that there always were reasons to return. So when a new PhD student, Michelle Parks, arrived looking for a project that would involve both ‘remote sensing’ (in this case, satellite observation) with field work on a volcano, Santorini was the obvious choice for a study of how volcanoes behave in between eruptions. In Santorini’s case, the last very small eruption was in 1950, but there was a rich record of carefully observed eruptions stretching back to 1707: a gold mine of information from which  we could tease out ideas about how it might behave in the future. When we started work in early 2010, there had been no sign at all of any life in the volcano for as long as anyone could remember.

Three years on, and that has now all changed: the volcano has just had its first ‘sharp intake of breath‘ since the last eruption, with the arrival of a fresh pulse of molten rock into the shallow crust, four or five kilometers beneath the volcano. In the time it took for the scientific paper to pass through the peer review system the rumble of tiny earthquakes which heralded this period of unrest has quietened down, and the volcano seems to be returning to slumber for just a little longer. This time, though, everyone is watching.


Hooper, A., 2012, Volcanology: a volcano’s sharp intake of breath. Nature Geoscience 5, 686–687, doi:10.1038/ngeo1584

Parks, MM et al., 2012, Evolution of Santorini volcano dominated by episodic and rapid fluxes of melt from depth. Nature Geoscience 5, 749–754, doi:10.1038/ngeo1562


Air photo of the northern part of Nea Kameni, the youngest of the volcanic islands of Santorini. Taken in May 2012 by the NERC Airborne Research and Survey team.