Steering a Pathway to Professional Competency Accreditation in Hydrogeology in Australia

Australian Institute of Geoscientists > News > Steering a Pathway to Professional Competency Accreditation in Hydrogeology in Australia

CHRIS DICKINSON, RPGeo (Hydrogeology) and DOUG BROWN, RPGeo (Hydrogeology)

This article is based on a talk we recently presented at the Australasian Groundwater Conference 2022 in Perth. AGC22 is a hydrogeology dedicated event run by the International Association of Hydrogeologists (IAH) Australian chapter. This paper was developed to present (again) the importance of professionalism and competency within our industry, and is a renewed effort to raise our levels of competency and professionalism aligned to increasingly connected public perceptions. This paper was hydrogeology focussed but certainly has relevance across the broader geoscience community.

What is professionalism?

The Australian Council of Professions (ACOP, 2003) provide a concise description of professionalism, key elements to this paper are highlighted and underlined:

  • “A Profession is a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and who hold themselves out as and are accepted by the public as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others”
  • “A Professional is a member of a Profession. Professionals are governed by codes of ethics and profess commitment to competence, integrity and morality, altruism and the promotion of the public good within their expert domain.”
  • “Professionals are accountable to those they serve and to society”.

These are powerful and meaningful statements. Professionalism and public awareness of our qualifications and experience is becoming more important as society and industry expectations of our work becomes increasingly raised through heightened ESG awareness, the need for competent technical water management advice surrounding the challenges associated with the transition away from the carbon economy, the focussed recognition (for example through the GISTM) of the need for our specialist services, and a greater demand for information and public awareness through social media.

Our corner of the geoscience sector currently lacks this public transparency and industry professional commitment.

In an exercise separate to the paper but directly relevant, co-author Doug brown initiated a feedback request from the existing pool of RPGeo (Hydrogeology) professionals, framed around the question “Why did you become an RPGeo (Hydrogeology) through the AIG?”

The results were combined into a word map which provides a valuable sense of professional meaning and purpose to those already committed. This aligns very well with the description of a profession after ACOP, and the proposed mechanisms of career adaptation presented in this paper.

The role of the AIG to a Hydrogeologist’s career?

Hydrogeologists have traditionally aligned their professional careers with the IAH.

This shouldn’t change.

The IAH is a critically important learned society that provides international information sharing and opportunities to converse, meet and present the work we do to like-minded professionals. But the IAH does not have a Code of Ethics, nor does it have a process of technical membership scrutiny, or a process to assess complaints in an equitable and efficient manner.

The AIG fills that gap.

Membership to the AIG and to the elevated RPGeo status includes application review and scrutiny, and for RPGeo status, there is the added obligation of logged CPD (continuing professional development). This latter element is important as we transition toward life-long-learning as opposed to a single degree qualification to serve a 40+ year career.

The AIG is therefore a partner to the IAH, NOT a competitor!

JORC and its relevance to our professional community

The Australasian Code for Reporting of Exploration Results, Mineral Resources and Ore Reserves (‘the JORC Code’, JORC : Mineral Resources and Ore Reserves) is a professional code of practice that sets minimum standards for public reporting of minerals exploration results, mineral resources and ore reserves. Although JORC does not require RPGeo status (it requires competency, which is described in detail in (JORC Competent Person – A baseline review in a global context | Australian Institute of Geoscientists (, it started the process of professional recognition, and competent person (CP) accreditation within the Geoscience community.

The key to understanding the relevance of this is to understand the JORC Code purpose – it provides a mandatory system for the classification of minerals exploration results, mineral resources and ore reserves, and reports that are prepared under the code are completed for the purpose of informing investors or potential investors and their advisors. The JORC Code is not a how-to-do-geology guide – it is a system of common language and communication tools.

In the context of hydrogeology, a similar code would be of value – again, aimed not at how-to-do-hydrogeology, rather how to report in a manner that meets the three JORC Code criteria of competency, transparency and materiality. Such a guide does not need to be long or technical, and work in this space has already commenced by others with similar professional sentiments to the authors of this paper. More of this will come in due course as this presentation is expanded on.

What are other professions doing?

Accountants, dentists, engineers, financial advisors, legal practitioners, medical practitioners, registered nurses and teachers are all obligated to meet varying degrees of membership / professional registration standards in Australia (JORC Competent Person – A baseline review in a global context | Australian Institute of Geoscientists ( Geoscientists who operate to the JORC Code have to also meet CP requirements.

Hydrogeologists in Australia currently have no such obligation.

The RPGeo program provides this missing link between public communication and industry professionalism, and does so with independent scrutiny of experience and qualifications.

Anyone can theoretically call themselves a Principal hydrogeologist, but only those who have applied for and meet the requirements of RPGeo can claim to be an RPGeo. This is a very important differentiator for the public.

It is further noted that international project engagement is now a common component to most hydrogeologists’ careers. When compared with other jurisdictions, Australia is lagging in this regard. To practice as a Hydrogeologist in Canada for example, you need Provincial or Territorial accreditation as a P.Geol, in the UK, you need to be a Chartered Geologist. Numerous other countries have the same or similar requirements.

Australia has some of the worlds’ best hydrogeologists. International reciprocal recognition of our credentials has no chance though without some form of established competency or accreditation process.

It is up to us to raise our standards, not to ask our international colleagues to lower theirs.

What is the RPGeo program in terms of professional commitment?

So what is actually being asked of here?

On a scale of 0 to 10, where:

  • “0/10” represents no accreditation, no regulation / registration, no ethical
    or professional code compliance, no professional standards, no review of
    qualifications and only professional self-judgement, and,
  • “10/10” represents full legislated regulation and registration with an au-
    thorising (e.g., Government) body, mandatory requirement to practice, entry
    and ongoing membership examinations, interviews and the like.

We are suggesting that the RPGeo program falls at about a “6/10” – it achieves professional accreditation (without need for registration), it is a peer reviewed process which represents independency, it commits the member to a Code of Ethic and Complaints Review process, it provides the CPD needed to maintain currency in experience, it conveys willingness for public scrutiny and is a proactive means of leadership in our industry through self-commitment rather than an imposed criteria out of our control.

This score, because of the willingness for public openness, is also the start of the “level playing field”.

Currently, you could argue our industry sits about a “1-2/10” on the same scale.

But why should we?

There have been many arguments used to discourage such membership in previous attempts. Some of those that have been heard by the authors include:

“I’ve been a hydrogeologist for 30 years, I don’t need an accreditation to practice, nor the AIG to tell me I am ‘competent'”
“I don’t believe in professional competency”
“I don’t see the value of the additional cost – this is a money grab”
“I don’t have time to commit to such a program or am too busy to complete the application – I will wait until it becomes mandatory”
“I don’t qualify for AIG membership so why should I support a shift to an accreditation / competency program?”
“Why is this even needed? There is nothing wrong with the status quo.”
“This is a just a means of assigning liability to an individual – why would I commit to a program that shines the spotlight on me and my work?”

None of these appear relevant or defensible considering today’s global challenges.

Increasing awareness of ESG (especially in water management), increasing awareness of the need for technical competency and the roles that hydrogeology plays in larger projects, public awareness and perceptions, and professional pride in the work we do, are all easy deflectors to these arguments.

It is hoped that the large number of emerging leaders in our field also see the value of this, and in so doing recognise that leadership is not just a process of promotion from the local HR department – it is about contributing to positive change.

That is fundamentally what this process is about. Positive change, industry improvement and public awareness.

The future vision

We concluded this paper not with a “next steps list”, rather a future vision of what we hope will develop:

  • We hope industry agrees and contributes to the leadership and advancement of our profession.
  • We hope that we can collaborate and work toward strategies such as:
    • Construction of a meaningful and industry relevant code.
    • Frame best practice, and documentation / common technical language development
    • CPD content development suitable for the hydrogeological community
    • Membership support
  • We hope to observe progressive change, such as:
    • Project awards and tenders stating preference for RPGeo sign-off
    • Regulatory / Government engagement – lobbying and advocacy opportunities – we have an opportunity to present a united front to the rule makers.
    • Hiring and retention incentives – employer recognition of RPGeo. Those who commit to public transparency, professional and ethical codes of conduct and industry betterment absolutely deserve greater rewards and recognition to those who do not.
    • Increasingly common usage of post-nominals in public documents.
    • Strong, and mutually beneficial IAH alignment and collaboration – this IAH should not be disadvantaged in this process

We encourage discussion on this, feel free to reach out to the authors.