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RA5a: Structure,environment and staffing policy

Structure and environment

Our strong mathematical, physical and biological base is exceptional in an Earth Science Department. We encompass a particularly broad spectrum of the subject, with powerful combinations of theory, observation and experiment. The 65 research active staff includes 6 Fellows of the Royal Society and two Foreign Members of the US National Academy. We have produced over 1,300 mainstream publications in the last 5 years. The Department’s policy to pursue fundamental strategic research at the cutting edge of the subject is strongly endorsed by industry. Notably, BP have invested £23M in the BP Institute because they believe that our fundamental research will lead to further major breakthroughs of industrial relevance. Another distinctive feature of the Department is its ability to design and construct novel instrumentation to achieve outstanding results at the international forefront. This exceptional instrumental base has been further enhanced by recent major grants under JIF, JREI and the EPSRC strategic equipment programme.

Our investment in outstanding young researchers of great promise, recruited internationally in strategically important fields, has led to a good age profile. The substantial number of Research Fellows supported by the Royal Society, EU and Cambridge Colleges makes a major contribution to our research effort. This is further enhanced by our Technical and Computer Officers who are full members of the research community, most with substantive publications. A hallmark of the Department is the creation of a stimulating environment where new ideas flourish. The absence of formal group boundaries promotes effective and flexible interaction, so leading to new initiatives and reinforcement of existing areas. Such flexibility enables us to respond rapidly to external initiatives.

The strong links with industry and major international co-operation (including leading EU Networks, in Climate Change and in Mineral Transformations) creates a vibrant and exceptionally outward looking research environment. The Department plays a central role in major interdisciplinary research Centres in Cambridge including the BP Institute (with Mathematics, Chemistry, Engineering and Chemical Engineering) and the Institute of Theoretical Geophysics (with Mathematics), the Centre for Ferroics (with Physics and Materials Science), and has major involvement in the Cambridge-MIT initiative (CMI) (with Engineering, Materials Science and Management Studies). We also have numerous national and international associations.

Our advances in research have wide implications for society for example, in earthquake and volcanic hazard assessment, in nuclear test ban monitoring, in novel materials for hazardous waste encapsulation, and in climate change prediction, as well as for hydrocarbon exploration. The Department attaches high priority to outreach and promoting the public understanding of science, making major contributions through public lectures (notable examples are the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in two consecutive years), major documentary films by the BBC and international television companies, the National Science Week and wide interaction with schools through the Sedgwick Museum.

Research Highlights

We have largely fulfilled the plans outlined in the 1996 submission. Our major achievements over the last five years include:

· We have developed innovative seismic methods which enable us to image mantle plumes and molten rock beneath hotspots and sediments beneath thick basalt layers. Hitherto basaltic layers had been a major barrier in oil exploration. (White,R, Singh, Barton, Hobbs)

· We have overturned 20 years perception of how the continents deform by showing that the strength of the continental lithosphere resides primarily in the crust rather than the mantle. (Jackson, Priestley, McKenzie)

· We have developed high-power computational methods, which together with in situ diffraction and vibrational spectroscopy, have revealed the controlling atomistic mechanisms of cation ordering and solid solution formation in minerals. These underpin our understanding of the role of minerals both as indicators and regulators of Earth history. (Carpenter, Dove, Holland, Redfern, Scott, Zhang )

· Encapsulation of radioactive waste using minerals is now within reach following our work on metamict silicates. Hitachi high-power computational methods have led to new theory that describes the structural physics of radiation-damaged minerals. (Dove, Farnan, Salje, Zhang)

· We have revolutionised understanding of the physics of melt generation and flow which, combined with the results of geophysical and geochemical observations, has enabled us to model melting at ocean ridges, in mantle plumes and continental rift zones, as well as on Venus and Mars. (Mckenzie, Bickle, White R)

· We have transformed our understanding of the early evolution of life by the discovery of the oldest recorded occurrences of sex (1200 Ma), dinoflagellates (850 Ma), fish (520 Ma) and zooplankton (510 Ma), and of Ediacaran-type fossils in Cambrian strata. All have profound implications for interpreting the "Cambrian explosion", (Butterfield, Conway Morris)

· We have redefined the paradigm of classic Permian and Devonian reefs, in the former case literally inverting the perceived ecology. This work is based on both modern ecological theory and non-uniformitarian thinking that recognizes substantial evolutionary shifts in reef communities, and is of great interest to the oil industry. (Wood)

· We have fundamentally revised models of ice-age climatic variability by our integration of oxygen isotope data from air bubbles in ice cores and microfossils from the deep sea. This has shown that the 100,000 year ice-volume cycle lags the cycles in atmospheric carbon dioxide and deep ocean temperature. (Shackleton)

· We have made the first independent records of Cenozoic and glacial/interglacial ocean temperature (and by difference, ice volume) by developing novel analytical methods for trace metals. The results define the timings of major glaciations, showing they are only partially forced by major episodes of cooling. (Elderfield).

· We have developed quantitative dynamical models to explain the long runout of dilute volcanic ash flows, and identified a novel two-phase flow mechanism for triggering basaltic eruptions driven by bubble-melt separation. This research will impact significantly on the quantification of natural hazards. (Woods, Huppert, Pyle, Dade, Hovius)


Users of this website should note that the information is not intended to be a complete record of all research centres in the UK

Copyright 2002 - HEFCE, SHEFC, ELWa, DEL

Last updated 17 October 2003

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