Rob Ward - a Groundwater Guru... by Hazel Gibson

Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from Plymouth University, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. During July I was up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.

Dr Rob Ward with the amazing sand tank groundwater model.
Dr Rob Ward has one of the most challenging jobs in the BGS. As the Director of Groundwater Science, he oversees a huge research department examining all aspects of groundwater use in the UK and abroad and he also acts as a liaison between his research teams and a diverse range of other government bodies. He is, in many ways, the ‘face’ of groundwater research at the BGS and is very proud of the diverse team that he manages and the exciting work that they are doing. He started his career at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, studying Environmental Science and majoring in Aquatic and Atmospheric Science.

When he finished his degree, he decided to pursue a PhD and focused on the chalk aquifer,  one of the most important sources of drinking water in the UK and which maintains the flow in many of the rivers in southern England. He enjoyed his PhD so much that he wanted to stay working in the same field, so joined the BGS in, what was at the time called, the Fluid Processes Research Group.

He stayed at the BGS for 10 years, examining subjects as diverse as landfill gas migration and radioactive waste disposal, before being selected as the first of a new cohort of exchange workers, sent to the Environment Agency to improve communication and understanding between the different science organisations (a practice that continues today). Unfortunately for the BGS, he enjoyed the challenges of working for a new team, within a different organisation so much that he wanted to stay. “I enjoyed working there so much that I tried to make myself invaluable. If you do that then you’ll have a lot more options at the end of your secondment!” He was successful and ended up staying with the Environment Agency for 12 years commissioning or appointing research; translating its results into policy and operational guidance; and providing advice to government departments like DEFRA. He gradually started to move from research to policy, handling many of the new EU requirements for more robust planning and management of risks to groundwater. He also had the challenge of managing a large dispersed project team comprising people that he didn’t directly manage. The aim of this group was to develop and implement a new national monitoring strategy for UK groundwater.

Rob was faced with the question of 'how do you meet complex and difficult targets with people who don’t answer to you?' The answer he says is trust. “I had to build trust with the people who I needed to do this work whilst at the same time getting buy-in from their managers. It was great experience for me.”

About four years ago, Rob was given the opportunity to become the Head (now Director) of Groundwater Science, back in the BGS and he says he doesn’t think he could have got to this position  without broadening his experience outside the Survey. Now he is in charge of a department that is at the heart of many issues faced in the UK today, from natural groundwater chemistry to cutting edge 3Dgroundwater mapping, from resilience of our water supplies to climate change, to the legacy of our industrial past. These issues impact us all in many ways and our lack of awareness of this problem is part of a bigger issue that Rob and his whole department are trying to fix. “Here in the UK, we don’t recognise how important groundwater is – it’s hidden. Out of sight, out of mind.” In order to raise awareness of this precious resource, Rob is a strong advocate for public engagement and encourages his team to discuss their work with others. He even demonstrated a great new piece of kit that simulates groundwater flow in different environments – the Sand Tank Model. This model allows people to manipulate the groundwater movement through an aquifer and introduce coloured dyes to simulate groundwater contamination and flow through different types of ‘rock’ and at different depths to see how they interact. It’s a brilliant example of making the unseen, seen and understandable.

The Groundwater Science team also help produce the
Hydrological Outlook - this is for August 2014.
But for Rob, communicating his science doesn’t just mean sand tanks and school children. At the height of the Somerset floods (winter2013/14), Rob was called to Downing Street to represent the BGS, as a part of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) to advise the Prime Minister and the government about the flooding crisis unfolding across the south of England. Rob’s position means that he has to be ready at any moment to speak with the national media, the government or a member of the public about the risks and opportunities provided by UK groundwater. It’s a difficult job, but with the support of his team, Dr Rob Ward is confident he can improve our understanding and awareness of groundwater in the UK, and I think so too.