New training centre will bridge the gap between environmental science and AI to address global environmental challenges

New training centre will bridge the gap between environmental science and AI to address global environmental challenges

The Department of Earth Science is thrilled to be participating in an exciting new Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) initiative just launched by the University. Backed by over £15 million funding, the University of Oxford is establishing a new CDT that will combine the university’s strengths in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, Big Data, and environmental sciences. Over an initial eight years, The UKRI AI Centre for Doctoral Training in AI for the Environment (The Intelligent Earth Centre) will train almost 100 PhD students to develop and apply cutting-edge AI technologies to tackle urgent environmental crises. 

The Intelligent Earth Centre is one of a cohort of twelve new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) CDTs in AI, based at 16 universities.

Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation, and Technology, said: ‘The UK is at the very front of the global race to turn AI’s awesome potential into a giant leap forward for people’s quality of life and productivity at work, all while ensuring this technology works safely, ethically, and responsibly. The plans we are announcing today will future-proof our nation’s skills base, meaning we can reap the benefits of AI as it continues to develop. At the same time, we are taking the first steps to put the power of this technology to work, for good, across Government and society.’

Addressing a skills gap between AI and environmental science

The remarkable breakthroughs in AI and machine learning over recent decades offer the potential to revolutionize environmental research and provide novel solutions to address Earth’s environmental crises – from climate change and biodiversity loss, to pollution and clean energy. However, this is currently restricted by a crucial skills gap: environmental scientists often lack expertise in data sciences, limiting their ability to leverage AI and machine learning tools, whereas data scientists typically do not have specific knowledge in environmental sciences.

The Intelligent Earth Centre will meet this need by delivering a multidisciplinary training program designed to equip a new generation of PhD students to develop AI to tackle urgent environmental crises – well beyond the application of existing AI.

Professor Philip Stier (Department of Physics, University of Oxford), Director for The Intelligent Earth Centre, said: ‘Traditional, siloed training in environmental and data science has created a bottleneck for UK leadership in science, innovation, and entrepreneurship in this emergent space. Hence, the Intelligent Earth Centre will meet the urgent need for interdisciplinary training at the interface between the environment and AI.’

The new centre has been funded by a major £12 million grant from UKRI, with additional funding from the University of Oxford and a wide range of partners, including IBM, Google, DeepMind, the European Space Agency, Planet, the Met Office, the Frontier Development Lab, and the Satellite Applications Catapult. These partners will host the Centre’s students for placements, enabling them to develop their skills further.

An interdisciplinary initiative

The Intelligent Earth Centre will be intrinsically interdisciplinary, delivering tailored training in both environmental science and data science, and facilitating ambitious, intersectoral projects. Following a rigorous taught programme covering AI tools, frameworks, and environmental datasets, students will work in interdisciplinary groups to tackle grand challenges in environmental science with increasing complexity. Such applications of AI could include next generation climate models that run at a fraction of the computational cost and environmental footprint, automated tracking of biodiversity loss and unregulated pollution sources from space, or rapid alert systems for environmental disasters.

Professor Stier added: ‘Not only will The Intelligent Earth Centre provide highly qualified graduates for a wide range of industries, but we also expect our own students to drive innovation and found their own start-ups, supported by the programme’s dedicated training in enterprise, impact, and responsible AI.’

The Centre will have two entry streams for applicants: one for numerate candidates from environmental science backgrounds and the other for environmentally-driven candidates from computer science, data science, mathematics, statistics, or physics backgrounds. The first PhD positions will start in September 2024 and will open for applications soon with a deadline in January 2024. All details will be provided on The Intelligent Earth website.

Associate Professor Hannah Christensen (Department of Physics), who will lead on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion for The Intelligent Earth Centre, said: ‘Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion spans all our activities, from the way we admit, teach, and assess our students, to the timing and choice of cross-cohort social events. We’re also proud of our widening access initiatives, which include internships for candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, access scholarships through our Africa Oxford and Academic Futures programmes as well as our ambitious partnership with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.’

The Department of Earth Sciences is delighted to be involved in this exciting new initiative alongside the Departments of Physics, Biology, Computer Science, Engineering Science and Statistics, and the School of Geography and the Environment. UKRI AI Centre for Doctoral Training in AI for the Environment (Intelligent Earth) is a collaboration with the following non-academic partners: IBM, Google, DeepMind, NVIDIA, ESA, Planet, Met Office, Frontier Development Lab, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, National Centre for Atmospheric Science, On the Edge, Natural State, ConservationXLabs, and Satellite Applications Catapult.

More information can be found on The Intelligent Earth Centre website.


Article originally posted on the University of Oxford webpages.

Header image credit: Philip Stier/ NASA satellite imagery