Research matters: ‘Students should think hard about key skills before embarking on their studies’

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The Independent Online

Every day we hear of Government cuts and budgets squeezed to the limit, and the research sector is feeling the pinch as much as anyone. But there are still opportunities to be had. Indeed, it is all the more important that we invest in research, and the talents of our researchers, because in a knowledge economy research stimulates growth and wider benefits.

At Research Councils UK we recognise the need to make the most of these opportunities. Businesses and other organisations always need clever people, but they need to have the right mix of skills. To find out what environmental sciences students should focus on when making their postgraduate choices, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) commissioned a skills review from the Environment Research Funders’ Forum (ERFF), now merged with the Living with Environmental Change partnership.

ERFF carried out consultations with businesses, Government and academics working on natural environment issues and uncovered no less than 224 essential skills. They then reduced this to 15 critical skills, which are in very short supply.

People with hard-edged science and maths qualifications are particularly sought after. But those with skills such as translating research into plain language are also much in demand. Such skills are needed to allow the UK to apply its new ideas and technologies and to respond to the impacts of climate change.

Professor Bob Allison, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, was heavily involved in producing the skills review. He hopes that it will bring closer collaboration between employers and those providing the training. He agrees with NERC that students, before embarking on a research career, should think hard about their choices: “The review provides evidence to prospective students, who increasingly invest significant time and money in their own skills development, of how training opportunities directly increase their employability.”

Take Emma Garnett. She is currently completing a BA in zoology at Cambridge University and will be starting a European Masters in applied ecology next year. She checked out the skills review when she was making her choices and was struck by the urgent need for ‘multi-disciplinarity’.

This is where cutting- edge ideas developed in one area are transferred across academic boundaries into other areas. “It was reassuring as the review showed me that I could choose things that were needed,” she said. “I was particularly interested in the multi-disciplinarity skills gap as that includes understanding what motivates people and makes a difference to them.”

Emma is very aware of the benefits of natural resources and that using them unsustainably can’t continue. “This would be detrimental for the environment, society and the economy. This has influenced my choice of modules this year. I took more ecology than animal or behaviour modules as I thought this would be more useful for my career.”

The Living with Environmental Change partnership has since produced the National Ecosystem Assessment that puts an economic value on our natural resources, and the UK Government has published the Natural Environment White Paper, providing further evidence that relevant skills in the environment sector are vital for the UK’s future.

Although the postgraduate skills review focused on the environmental sector, it has implications for other research areas too. It identifies skills gaps relating to sustainable food supplies – combining agricultural knowledge with biological modelling, for example – or ensuring technical expertise is allied to environmental knowledge when developing energy sources.

In developing this review, NERC was joined by four other research councils and a number of environmental and Government agencies to provide funding and support. It is joined-up work for a joined-up world.

More information about the Most Wanted: Skills Needs in the Environment Sector review is available here. More information about RCUK can be found at www.rcuk.ac.uk

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