The True Rare Metals Crisis

by Gareth Hatch on June 12, 2010

in News Analysis

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Regular readers will be familiar with recent news and commentary on issues of rare metal supplies and the challenges associated with securing the supply chain through the diversification of resources. Most, if not all of the initiatives to tackle aspects of these challenges have originated in the United States, primarily driven by concerns within the defense and allied industries that there are unacceptable vulnerabilities in the US defense supply chain. Rare earths are the current poster child for these concerns, but a number of other natural resources are under similar scrutiny.

Besides access to hard asset resources though, there is another aspect to the rare metals story that has received only token attention to date, one that threatens to derail efforts to secure the supply chain in the near future…

I am talking, of course, about the current state of human resources in the R & D, exploration, mining and processing industries, particularly well-training technical personnel, in the USA, the West and elsewhere outside of China. I’ve been at numerous meetings and conferences in the past few years where older attendees lament the decline of science and engineering in the USA, and the apparent dearth of new talent coming into a variety of industries. Without a well trained workforce and talent-filled university research groups, the thinking goes, the USA will slip behind. I’ve heard similar anecdotes in the UK and I’m sure they’re repeated in Canada and elsewhere. It’s quite a paradox; the youth of the most technologically-advanced countries in the world are apparently less and less interested in the type of educational and career paths, which lead to innovation and production of the technology, devices and other paraphernalia that are these days mainstay of Western society.

Earlier this year the National Science Board, the governing body of the US National Science Foundation, published its 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators report, a particularly comprehensive set of statistics covering all aspects of science and engineering in the USA, including comparisons to a variety of countries around the world.

Figure 1 is a chart from that report, showing the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in the natural sciences and engineering in a variety of countries, between 1998 and 2006. In this chart, natural sciences includes physical, biological, earth, atmospheric, ocean, agricultural and computer sciences, in addition to mathematics. It’s not hard to notice the growing lead that China now has over the other nations listed, and the significant year-on-year growth that China enjoys compared to the US and elsewhere.

Now, this data is for undergraduate degrees; let’s take a look at the chart in Figure 2, from the same report, showing the number of science and engineering researchers in a variety of places on the globe. These will be people at various stages in their careers, with bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral level degrees.

We can see here from this data that while there is still growth in the number of researchers in the USA and the European Union, there has been an explosion of growth of such individuals in China. Note also that many of those Chinese researchers obtained their master’s and doctorate level degrees from Western universities.

The numbers, however, belie the situation in disciplines of direct relevance to the exploration, mining and processing of rare metals – in fact, any and all of the metals and minerals that are the foundation of the technology supply chain – because most of the growth in US and EU research has been in the area of biotech and other life sciences.

According to the NSF data, in 2008 the USA produced a grand total of 380 PhDs in the geological sciences, 16 of which specialized mineralogy and petrology. The country also produced 872 chemical engineering PhDs, 22 PhDs in metallurgical engineering and a whopping 13 PhDs in mining and mineral engineering [which, for the record, is the same number of PhDs awarded on the subject of “Folklore”…].

I would be really interested to see similar types of data for Canada and Australia, to see if there are similarities or differences in the numbers.

Now, I’ll be the first to concede that becoming a competent geologist, mining engineer or extractive metallurgist does not require a PhD; there will of course be larger numbers of newly minted master’s degree holders and even greater numbers of bachelor’s degree holders joining the ranks of the workforce, I’m sure. I have to say though, that at a time when the role of natural resources, and critical and strategic materials such as the rare earths and other rare metals are becoming so important, the PhD numbers are really quite horrifying. This dearth of talent, in combination with the imminent onslaught of baby boomer retirements and the subsequent loss of tribal knowledge we can expect from the mining and exploration-related industries, should be of concern to everyone involved in the industry.

The so-called rare metals crisis is therefore much more about the race for the development of talented, technical human capital to help solve rare metals-related challenges, than being just about the natural resources we’re trying to secure. After all – we know where many of those natural resources are; what we don’t know is where the next wave of technical talent is going to come from to see us through the next 0-20 years…

[First published at RareMetalBlog.]

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