Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Addressing environmental challenges: NERC highlight topics 2022

Start application

Apply for funding to address one of seven environmental ‘highlight topic’ research challenges.

You must be a UK resident and employed by an eligible UK research organisation.

Your proposal must address issues within only one of these topics.

  • eco-evolutionary drivers of emerging antifungal resistance
  • understanding and predicting changes in mountain water resources
  • advances in halocarbon research
  • mixing of stratified shelf sea biogeochemistry by offshore renewable energy
  • wildfire management tools in the UK
  • assessment and monitoring of urban geothermal resources
  • microbial community dynamics.

The full economic cost of your project can be between £2.5 million and £5 million, depending on the topic you choose. NERC will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

Your project can last up to four years.

Who can apply

Start date

Projects will start no later than November 2022, except for projects subject to programming of ship-time or aircraft campaigns.

Individual eligibility

Normal individual eligibility applies and is in Section C of the NERC research grant and fellowships handbook.

Principal investigators and co-investigators may be involved in no more than two proposals submitted to this funding opportunity. However, they may only apply as the principal investigator on one proposal.

No associated studentships can be requested under this opportunity.

Research organisation eligibility

UKRI research grants for all schemes may be held at:

  • approved UK higher education institutions (HEI)
  • approved research council institutes (RCI)
  • independent research organisations (IRO)
  • public sector research establishments (PSRE).

Check if your organisation is eligible for research and innovation funding.

IIASA Co-investigator eligibility rules apply to this funding opportunity.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

NERC values equality, diversity and inclusion across all its funding programmes, and actively encourages proposals from diverse groups of researchers.

What we're looking for

Highlight topics

We have selected seven highlight topics of equal priority for this call.

Proposals must address issues within a single highlight topic. Proposals addressing more than one highlight topic will not be accepted.

Where multiple proposals are invited within a highlight topic, they must be independent projects that deliver as stand-alone proposals.

The highlight topics in this funding opportunity are:

  • topic A: understanding the eco-evolutionary drivers of emerging antifungal resistance
  • topic B: understanding and predicting changes in mountain water resources
  • topic C: advances in halocarbon research to ensure success of the next phase of the Montreal Protocol in protecting the ozone layer and climate
  • topic D: mixing of stratified shelf sea biogeochemistry by offshore renewable energy
  • topic E: costs and benefits of wildfire management tools, integrating ecological information to address rapidly changing risks in the UK
  • topic F: smart subsurface assessment and monitoring of urban geothermal resources
  • topic G: understanding microbial community dynamics across space and time.

Further information on each of the different topics is below.

Topic A: understanding the eco-evolutionary drivers of emerging antifungal resistance

Objective

To explore the eco-evolutionary impacts of fungicides on microbial diversity in the environment and how this relates to the emergence of antifungal resistant pathogens.

Strategic context

The fungal kingdom embraces up to six million eukaryotic species and is remarkable in terms of the breadth and depth of impact on global:

  • health
  • agriculture
  • biodiversity
  • ecology
  • manufacturing
  • biomedical research.

Fungi are the Earth’s preeminent degraders of organic matter and whilst fungi provide key ecosystem functions. They also jeopardise food security worldwide by causing epidemics in staple crops that feed billions and cause lethal infections in humans. Accordingly, global markets for fungicides and antifungal drugs are huge and are projected to exceed $16 billion by 2023.

We are witnessing an unprecedented rise in the rate of emergence of pathogenic fungi that are resistant to the arsenal of antifungal chemicals used in health and agriculture.

Interactions between warming climates and fungicide usage are predicted to drive the evolution and spread of antifungal resistant pathogens with global ‘One Health’ implications. Moreover, the wider ecotoxicological impacts of fungicides on fungal biodiversity remain little known.

This highlight topic will examine the impact of nested anthropogenic drivers including:

  • climate change
  • agricultural systems
  • green-waste recycling
  • human habitation.

The aim is to understand how they create hotspots of evolution for antifungal resistant pathogens. These eco-evolutionary insights will be used to guide methods to reduce the impact of fungicides and antifungal resistance on ecosystem and human health.

Scope

This highlight topic will focus on:

  • the use of broad-spectrum antifungal chemicals
  • the impact on microbial diversity in the natural environment
  • the interaction with wider environmental drivers in the emergence of anti-fungal resistant pathogens.

Research questions to address

The overarching aim is to increase understanding of the eco-evolutionary impacts of fungicides on microbial diversity in soil, water and air, and how this relates to the rate of emergence of antifungal resistant pathogens.

Specific research questions to be addressed include:

  • what are the environment-specific ecotoxicological properties or effects of fungicides on off-target fungi such as saproprobes, root mycorrhizae and plant endophytic fungi?
  • how and where do sublethal concentrations of fungicides engender resistance in the environment?
  • what are the anticipated unintended impacts of antifungal chemicals on the health of crops, forests and humans?
  • how do nested abiotic (for example, warming, humidity) and biotic (for example, land usage) environmental drivers interact to exacerbate or mitigate the effect of fungicides on microbial diversity and the resultant exposure of landscapes and people to resistant fungi?

Delivery

This highlight topic should be addressed by up to two projects, each up to the value of £2 million at 80% full economic cost (£2.5 million 100% full economic cost) and up to four years in duration. Proposals must address at least two out of the four specific research questions.

Topic B: understanding and predicting changes in mountain water resources

Objective

Use enhanced observational data and targeted research to improve:

  • accuracy and precision of weather
  • glacier and hydrology models used for forecasting mountain water resources
  • making climate change scenario predictions across representative regions.

The aim is to support effective management of this important ecosystem service globally.

Strategic context

Water released from seasonal glacial snow and ice melt is a vital resource in many countries. It supports economies, ecosystems and societal wellbeing for a sixth of the global population.

However, these mountain water resources are some of the most sensitive ecosystem services to climate change. Mountain ranges across the world are predicted to experience significant losses to their snow and ice in the next 30 years. This poses a global threat to the security of water, food and energy, and therefore, the livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people.

Despite this significant risk, mountain water resources are among the poorest documented ecosystem services.

There is uncertainty over how much water the mountain cryosphere provides and to what extent this will be further impacted in the face of climate change.

There is therefore a need for improved hydro-meteorological research supported by enhanced data provision through targeted snow, ice and paleoclimate observations in key mountainous regions.

To better understand this important resource, and how it responds to environmental change now and into the future, improvements are needed to:

  • coverage (spatial and temporal)
  • scale and accuracy of data on weather, snowfall and ice reserves.

Enhanced sampling of water stored long-term as ice and seasonally as snow within the mountain cryosphere in representative regions will:

  • enable the fine-tuning of weather, glacier and hydrology models
  • provide a better understanding of historical wet and dry extremes.

This will reduce uncertainty and increase accuracy within models and improve the ability to predict future trends. It will support adaptation and resilience through better:

  • water management by economies reliant on the mountain cryosphere
  • predictability of water stress, floods and droughts.

Recent scientific advances include improvements in:

  • the resolution of snow and ice observations and models
  • palaeoclimatological prediction capabilities facilitated by artificial intelligence.

These advances mean we are now in a better position to understand, predict and respond to changes in mountain water resources, and any risks associated with that change.

Scope

Proposals should focus on calibration and up-skilling of weather, glacier and hydrology models at strategic mountain regions, which are now accessible to a new generation of snow, ice and paleoclimate observations.

This will be facilitated through localised sampling tailored to overcome the limitations of legacy datasets and directly meet model needs.

Once achieved, this improvement in model skill will provide spatially and temporally continuous products (including forecasts and scenario predictions) with the greater accuracy and prediction required.

Proposals may focus on any glacial region of interest that will help address the scientific objectives outlined below.

Research questions to address

Through enhanced observational data and modelling accuracy, with the target of enabling effective management and prediction of mountain water resources, projects should seek to answer the following questions:

  • how much seasonal snow accumulates and how will it change
  • how frequently extreme wet and dry years strike the mountain cryosphere, and what climate factors cause this, and how will they change
  • taking these factors into account, what are the timescales and potential trajectories for change for existing glacier ice resources within representative mountainous regions under different climate scenarios?

Each project must address all three questions.

Delivery

This highlight topic should be addressed by up to two projects, each up to the value of £2 million at 80% full economic cost (£2.5 million 100% full economic cost) and up to four years in duration. Individual proposals must address all three research questions.

Topic C: advances in halocarbon research to ensure success of the next phase of the Montreal Protocol in protecting the ozone layer and climate

Objective

To provide evidence on halocarbons to support the Montreal Protocol.

The aim is to:

  • protect the ozone layer, reduce climate impacts
  • understand wider environmental impacts.

Strategic context

With the Kigali Amendment having come into force in 2019, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer has entered a major new phase. For the first time, the protocol will regulate a wide range of substances, namely hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), based on their impact on climate and their potential to deplete the ozone layer.

However, coinciding with this new era, recent high-profile research has identified the most substantial challenge the protocol has yet faced. Atmospheric data and modelling revealed a resumption in the production and use of several globally banned ozone depleting substances.

This episode has led policymakers and industrialists to re-examine the protocol’s reporting mechanisms and ask why they failed in this case and, therefore, whether these mechanisms are suitable to ensure future compliance.

It has also posed difficult questions for the scientific community:

  • why were robust announcements not made to policy makers sooner?
  • are similar breaches occurring for other substances?

At the same time that these issues have been identified regarding regulated compounds, research is highlighting the previously ignored role of unregulated substances in the depletion of the ozone layer. For example, the rapid growth in short-lived chlorine-containing gases has offset some of the Montreal Protocol’s success.

Furthermore, preliminary investigations of the atmospheric fate of compounds designed to replace HFCs suggest that they may not be quite as benign for climate or the wider environment as first assumed.

This is a period of significant evolution and stress-testing for the Montreal Protocol. Major challenges and concerns are arising while at the same time it is embarking on one of its most ambitious endeavours.

Over the last 40 years, UK science has played a central role in shaping and evaluating the protocol. Decision-making by the parties will now be more reliant than ever before on the advances of the scientific community to support the Montreal Protocol, especially in its dual role of both protecting the ozone layer and helping to mitigate climate change.

Scope

The project approach and design for answering the research questions is open for the applicants to decide.

However, the applicant must address the fundamental understanding and uncertainties surrounding HFCs and other relevant gases, including:

  • chemical reaction pathways
  • kinetics
  • spectroscopy and radiative forcing of.

This will help evaluate the overall environmental impact and the impact of ozone layer recovery.

It is expected that projects will include significant modelling and experimental in situ observational components, as well as making use of existing observations.

Research questions to address

Projects should address these research questions:

  • how can we evaluate compliance with the Montreal Protocol for HFCs and a range of more than 40 gases with different lifetimes, sources and sinks, globally and regionally, based on a sparse atmospheric monitoring network?
  • what is the relationship between production (the regulated and reported quantity) and emissions (the quantity inferred from atmospheric data) of ozone depleting substances and HFCs? This relationship is determined by industrial practices and the emissivity of various applications (for example, leakage rates from refrigeration systems). Therefore, it will require close coordination between industry and academia
  • how can current chemical species bank levels (for example, in existing air conditioning and refrigeration systems) and release rates be quantified, and therefore, what might be their future impacts be on the ozone layer and climate?
  • to what extent are unregulated short-lived compounds offsetting the rate of ozone layer recovery due to the Montreal Protocol, and how this might change with future consumption and in a changing climate?
  • how can we properly quantify ozone recovery from halogenated species in a stratosphere with regional variability and under a changing climate?
  • what are the global warming potentials of compounds that have been proposed to replace HFCs? What by-products do they form and what is the magnitude of any non-climate-related adverse impacts (for example, formation of trifluoroacetic acid)?

Delivery

This highlight topic should be addressed by one project, up to the value of £4 million at 80% full economic cost (£5 million 100% full economic cost), and up to four years’ duration. Proposals should address all questions outlined above.

Topic D: mixing of stratified shelf sea biogeochemistry by offshore renewable energy

Objective

To provide a step-change in understanding of the impacts of offshore renewable energy (ORE) on seasonally stratified shelf seas.

This is required to enable accelerated sustainable ORE roll-out through informed site assessment criteria and infrastructure and array level design.

Strategic context

Current offshore renewable energy (ORE) powers 12% of the UK economy. To meet 2050 net zero commitments, ORE will grow exponentially to meet approximately 60% of UK energy needs. Achieving this growth requires the first ever large-scale industrialisation of the UK’s seasonally stratified shelf seas.

Seasonal stratification is a response to weak tidal mixing and vital to the biological functioning of the ocean. It limits the vertical mixing of heat, nutrients and plankton between the surface and deeper waters.

Seasonal stratification controls shelf sea primary biological production and, subsequently, the sustainability of key bioresources. It also controls the capacity to absorb atmospheric CO2.

Preliminary studies show that tidal flow around individual ORE structures enhances mixing by an order of magnitude. When deployed in arrays, ORE structures increase regional drag and potentially produces ‘island wakes’, resulting in further disturbance of patterns of stratification. ORE impact on shelf sea stratification will depend on future designs and array layouts.

Sector growth has direct, yet currently unquantified and unregulated, impacts on:

  • stratified shelf sea biogeochemical cycling
  • primary biological production
  • CO2.

There is therefore a need to quantify and mitigate the impact of ORE sector growth on shelf seas, working on spatial scales from individual ORE structures to arrays to regional impacts.

Scope

To improve understanding of the impacts of ORE development on biogeochemical cycling, research on biological diversity and productivity in seasonally stratified shelf seas is required.

The aim is to deliver whole systems solutions for sustainable ORE development grounded in transdisciplinary research.

Research challenges to address

The last half century has shown that sub mesoscale (less than 10 kilometre) processes are critical to the physics and biogeochemistry of stratified seas. However, an advance is needed as existing tools are non-transferable to anthropogenic mixing of natural environments introduced by ORE infrastructure.

ORE structures add a new small-scale source of shelf sea mixing, crucially across the pycnocline where biogeochemical gradients are large. Water column stratification provides a context where small scale mixing will have large scale impact.

To address the challenges raised by sector growth into deeper, stratified, waters, the research questions include:

  • How much anthropogenic mixing of stratified waters is imposed by flow around fixed and floating structure designs, in a range of environmental conditions, and how does it scale from individual turbines to multiple arrays?
  • How can ocean observations be integrated with advanced regional ocean models, capturing multiscale mixing processes, for reliable digital environment simulation?
  • What will be the ‘new normal’ for biogeochemical cycles and UK shelf sea ecosystem function with current sector growth, and compound climatic change risk; what proactive changes to ORE regulation are needed now?
  • Can nature-based solutions inform both co-design of individual structures and (multiple) array layouts to accelerate sector growth whilst mitigating its impact on seasonally stratified UK, and global, shelf seas?

Delivery

This highlight topic should be addressed by up to two projects, each up to the value of £2 million at 80% full economic cost (£2.5 million 100% full economic cost) and up to four years in duration. Individual proposals must address two out of the four proposed research questions.

Topic E: costs and benefits of wildfire management tools: integrating ecological information to address rapidly changing risks in the UK

Objective

Explore interactions between management, land use and fire across UK landscapes to understand the ecological consequences of wildfire management tools on:

  • ecosystem carbon balance and carbon climate feedbacks
  • habitat quality and biodiversity.

Strategic context

In the UK, as in many regions throughout the world, fire frequencies, intensities, and severities are changing as conditions become more suitable for severe wildfires.

However, decision-makers’ capacity to evaluate the pros and cons of different methods of wildfire mitigation is limited by a weak evidence base. Environmental changes continue to outpace the development of predictive models and management tools.

The UK is an excellent ‘natural laboratory’ in which to examine such challenges. This is because:

  • it is representative of areas with a historically mild wildfire regime, but which are expected to experience more frequent and intense wildfires in the future
  • many UK habitats are representative of globally important carbon reservoirs, such as peatlands, where carbon stocks developed over millennia are increasingly threatened by short-term disturbances.

New knowledge from this research will:

  • directly inform government policy related to wildfire risks
  • identify best practices for protecting carbon stocks and biodiversity
  • provide a generalisable framework to evaluate land management practices and promote resilient environments.

Scope

Techniques to mitigate fire-related risks range from fuel load management, to manipulation of forest connectivity across the landscape.

Most tools were developed for less intense fire regimes. Practices developed in more fire-prone regions, for example, prescribed burning, might be increasingly relevant. Currently, such tools are not commonly used in the UK, in part through a lack of evidence of ecological consequences.

A combination of observational studies, controlled burn experiments, and model-based approaches should contribute to the development of a new generation of models.

These will provide clear representation of wildfire impacts on ecosystem processes. For example, through improved integration of wildfire effects in ecosystem models that explore interactions among biogeochemical and hydrological cycles.

Research challenges to address

To address the need to recalibrate management tools and keep pace with the rapidly changing environment, the following research challenges are identified:

Research challenge one

How do ecosystem carbon uptake and loss change along a gradient of fire intensity or severity?

The costs and benefits of different management tools depend on the relationship between fire severity and the magnitude of ecosystem carbon loss. For example, do multiple controlled burns in a woodland release more or less carbon than a single, severe fire?

Research challenge two

How do these same burn intensity gradients influence the structural complexity of the habitat and its suitability for native flora and fauna?

The management tools that most effectively protect carbon stocks may not be the same as those which maximise biodiversity. Assessing synergies or trade-offs between these two ecosystem services will inform decision support tools.

Research challenge three

Do fire impacts on ecosystem properties vary as a function of land use history or other land management practices? Does this impact the way such ecosystems respond to uncontrolled fires?

Delivery

This highlight topic should be addressed by up to two projects, each costing up to the value of £2 million at 80% full economic cost (£2.5 million 100% full economic cost) and up to four years in duration. Proposals should address all research challenges.

Topic F: smart subsurface assessment and monitoring of urban geothermal resources

Objective

To improve understanding of the technical and economic viability, environmental sustainability, and the ability to monitor and govern the use of the shallow subsurface for geothermal applications.

New understanding will support the development of evidence-based regulation, and full utilisation in decarbonisation strategies over the next two decades.

Strategic context

Decarbonising energy production is an urgent societal priority, with electricity and heat generation representing approximately 45% of global CO2 emissions. The uptake of urban geothermal resources is a valuable component in the UK’s obligation to meet net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. However, it is impeded by concerns over storage potential, scalability, environmental impact and resource management.

Moreover, without dedicated characterisation of the scale, resilience and environmental sustainability of the resource, stakeholder engagement will remain underdeveloped.

As a result, the UK could fail to recognise the full potential of geothermal resources to help meet its 2050 net zero ambitions.

Scope

The UK’s shallow and deep (0 to 3000 metres) subsurface is a natural and anthropogenic capital for energy storage and transmission. However, there is significant focused research required if our understanding of the potential of urban geothermal assets is to be fully recognised and incorporated countrywide into UK decarbonisation solutions.

There is a significant knowledge gap, regarding the geological controls, technical and economic viability, and environmental sustainability of the UK’s geothermal resource. This is especially true in urban centres where conventional geophysical investigation is challenging. As a result, this resource is under-exploited despite being readily available beneath UK urban centres, and represents a significant missed opportunity.

Cities have high energy demand yet also have the greatest potential for geothermal energy production. For example:

  • aquifer or borehole thermal energy storage (using natural and anthropogenic geoassets such as legacy mine workings)
  • open- and closed-loop systems for heating
  • ground-coupled heat exchangers
  • recycling of heat waste.

However, bringing a geoasset into usage requires impacts on groundwater and its flow, and environmental changes resulting from heat storage, to be understood and managed.

This highlight topic will fund proposals for smart assessment and monitoring of urban geothermal resources that explore how obstacles to stakeholder uptake can be anticipated and overcome. In so doing, proposals will enable an understanding of the scale, distribution, and resource potential of urban geoassets for the UK’s post-industrial cities.

Research questions to address

The research challenge of this topic requires a multi-disciplinary approach that will bring together expertise across:

  • geology
  • geophysics
  • engineering geology and environmental science
  • sustainability
  • stakeholder engagement.

Research questions include:

  • what is the current state of the urban subsurface and its capacity for local geothermal options?
  • How would temperature changes impact the structural integrity of the reservoir, and the environmental state of groundwater and microbiology?
  • how can the latest innovations in high-resolution (spatial and temporal) monitoring and artificial intelligence contribute to describing the evolution and environmental stability of a geothermal development, and its active management?
  • can heat-flow models be built to inform the maximum subsurface storage capacity and system load in different urban systems?
  • to what extent can waste heat from industry and other urban buildings be integrated into the urban thermal geoasset?
  • what is the long-term sustainability of multiple operating shallow geothermal schemes within a city or region, and what factors might affect this, for example, public acceptance?
  • what are the key issues and obstacles to the stakeholder uptake of an urban geothermal resource. For example, capacity and governance?

Delivery

This highlight topic should be addressed by up to two projects, each up to the value of £2 million at 80% full economic cost (£2.5 million 100% full economic cost) and up to four years in duration. Individual proposals should address two or more of the first six questions above, and in addition must address question seven.

Topic G: understanding microbial community dynamics across space and time

Objective

Use novel combinations of theoretical and empirical biology approaches to:

  • identify generalisable patterns
  • quantify the mechanisms responsible for microbial community assembly and persistence in fluctuating environments.

Strategic context

Microbial communities constitute the ‘unseen majority’ of life and provide key carbon and nutrient cycling services in diverse ecosystems.

Microbes account for around 30% of the total living biomass across all taxa on Earth while phytoplankton perform about 50% of global CO2 fixation. Aquatic and terrestrial bacteria and fungi account for a large proportion of global primary production.

Over the last decade, advances in genomics and proteomics have allowed increasingly high-resolution mapping of microbial communities. However, our ability to predict how environmental fluctuations affect the assembly, structure, stability, and functioning of complex microbial communities is currently limited.

Because microbial communities play such a major role in carbon and nutrient cycling across environments, this incomplete understanding ultimately hinders our ability to predict how environmental change affects global biogeochemical cycles.

This highlight topic will focus on delivering a new general, mechanistic framework for understanding and predicting how microbial communities are assembled and persist in the face of human-driven environmental changes on ecosystems.

The framework will also underpin future work on microbial community engineering to meet environmental and agronomic objectives.

Scope

Projects should focus on microbial communities in the natural environment with a role in biogeochemical cycling. They should bring together novel combinations of theoretical and empirical biology approaches.

Research question to address

In nature, fluctuations of different kinds, such as temperature, nutrients, and pH, are ubiquitous. However, few studies have directly addressed how they affect microbial community assembly, or functional and compositional stability after assembly.

A fine-scale mechanistic understanding of the temporal dimension of microbial community assembly and succession is particularly crucial because it happens rapidly, in the order of hours to weeks. This is due to typically short microbial generation times and strong coupling between their physiology and abiotic environmental factors.

Currently, there exists a promising but largely unexploited niche for theoretical and empirical biologists to work collaboratively to address key questions about microbial community assembly and its functional implications for the wider ecosystem.

These questions include:

  • what are the ecological rules that govern the assembly and turnover of microbial communities?
  • are these assembly rules consistent across environmental gradients (for example, temperature and resources) over space and time?
  • how do the dynamics of local microbial communities scale up to larger-scale ecosystem functioning?
  • how does microbial community structure impact the stability of carbon cycling ecosystem services in the face of environmental changes?

Delivery

This highlight topic should be addressed by up to two projects, each up to the value of £2 million at 80% full economic cost (£2.5 million 100% full economic cost) and up to four years in duration. Proposals may address any or a combination of the specified research questions.

Maximum funding values

The full economic cost limit for proposals is either:

  • up to £2.5 million for most topics
  • up to £5 million for the topic ‘advances in halocarbon research to ensure success of the next phase of the Montreal Protocol in protecting the ozone layer and climate’.

NERC will fund 80% of the full economic cost. Therefore the maximum funding applicants will receive from NERC is:

  • up to £2 million for most topics
  • up to £4 million for ‘Topic C: advances in halocarbon research to ensure success of the next phase of the Montreal Protocol in protecting the ozone layer and climate’.

Costs for ship-time and marine facilities, and other services

Ship-time and marine facilities (SME) costs must be included within the full economic cost limit of HTs with a limit of £5 million. SME costs do not need to be included within the full economic cost limit of HTs with a limit of £2.5 million.

All other services and facilities should be costed and included within the ‘directly incurred -other’ budget line on the Joint Electronic Submission system (Je-S) form for all topics..

Exceptional permission to exceed the funding limit

For this funding opportunity, we will consider exceptional cases for exceeding the limit of £2.5 million. The process for applying for exceeding the limit is the same as for NERC standard grants. See Section B of the NERC research grants and fellowships handbook.

The funding limit will only be extended in exceptional cases and any proposal that exceeds the limit without permission will be rejected.

For this funding opportunity, a case for exceeding the maximum limit must be submitted to highlighttopics@nerc.ukri.org by 16 February 2022 at the latest. You should receive a decision within 10 working days.

Using NERC facilities

Applicants wishing to use NERC services and facilities will need to contact the relevant facility at least two months prior to submission of the grant to:

  • discuss the proposed work
  • receive confirmation that they can provide the services required within the timeframe of the grant.

The facility will then provide a technical assessment that includes the calculated cost of providing the service. NERC services and facilities must be costed within the limits of the proposal.

The technical assessment must be submitted as part of the Je-S form, as detailed in the ‘Additional Information’ section and within the NERC research grants and fellowships handbook (paragraph 237).

See the full list of NERC facilities that require a technical assessment, excluding High Performance Computing (HPC), Ship-Time or Marine Equipment (SME) and the large research facilities at Harwell. These services have their own policies for access and costing.

Ship-time and marine facilities

Proposals to some topics may require ship-time and other marine facilities. Applicants wishing to use NERC’s marine facilities must complete an online ‘ship-time and marine equipment (SME) or autonomous deployment (ADF) application form’ available from Marine Facilities Planning.

The SME or ADF number should be included on the Je-S grant proposal form under ‘services and facilities’.

SMEs or ADFs must be submitted and approved by NERC Marine Planning by the time the proposal (Je-S form) is submitted, so that a PDF of the SME or ADF can be attached as a facility form. Failure to do so may result in the request not being included in the NERC Marine Facilities Programme.

Applicants intending to apply for NERC’s marine facilities should also contact marineplanning@nerc.ukri.org to discuss ship-time and equipment needs as soon as possible.

Completed SME and ADF forms should be submitted no later than two months before the funding opportunity deadline.

Antarctic logistic support

Applicants requiring Antarctic Logistics Support from NERC British Antarctic Survey must complete a pre-award ‘operational support planning questionnaire’ (OSPQ). This is an online form.

Completed pre-award OSPQs forms should be submitted no later than two months before the funding opportunity deadline.

Applicants must email the Antarctic Access Office (AAO) at BAS afibas@bas.ac.uk as early as possible to discuss their request. Please state your:

  • name
  • institution
  • proposal title.

AAO will set up a new, numbered pre-award OSPQ form and send the link to the applicant along with instructions for completion. The pre-award OSPQ form should be submitted to AAO  and included as an attachment at the full application stage.

Any funding applications that request Antarctic Logistic Support without having received prior logistic approval will not be accepted. All other services and facilities should be costed and included within the ‘directly incurred-other’ budget line on the Je-S form.

Data management

You must adhere to UKRI open research policy and NERC data policy and an outline data management plan produced as part of proposal development (see NERC data management planning guidance).

For details of data centres, see the NERC Environmental Data Service.

NERC will pay the data centre directly on behalf of the programme for archival and curation services, but applicants should ensure they request sufficient resource to cover preparation of data for archiving by the research team.

How to apply

You are encouraged to contact the NERC office at an early stage to discuss any questions on funding opportunity procedures.

All queries should be emailed to highlighttopics@nerc.ukri.org.

Notification of intent

A notification of intent to submit must be submitted by 16:00 on 16 February 2022. You must tell us:

  • the focus of your proposed research project
  • institutions, investigators and project partners you expect to be involved
  • a title and abstract of your planned work.

Notify NERC of your intent to submit.

The abstract will not be assessed, but NERC will use the information to plan the proposal assessment.

Full Je-S proposals submitted without a prior notification of intent will be rejected.

Full proposals

Closing date: 23 March 2022

You must submit your full proposal using the Joint Electronic Submission system (Je-S).

When applying select:

  • council: NERC
  • document type: Standard Proposal
  • scheme: Directed
  • call: Highlight Topics Round 8

The funding opportunity will close on Je-S at 16:00 on 23 March 2022 and it will not be possible to submit after this time.

Applicants should leave enough time for their proposal to pass through their organisation’s Je-S submission route before this date. Any proposal that is incomplete, or does not meet NERC’s eligibility criteria or follow NERC’s submission rules (see NERC research grants and fellowships handbook), will be office rejected and will not be considered.

All attachments submitted through the Je-S system must be completed in single-spaced typescript of minimum font size 11 point (Arial or other sans serif typeface of equivalent size to Arial 11), with margins of at least 2cm. This is with the exception of:

  • letters of support
  • services, facilities, equipment quotes.

Please note that Arial narrow, Calibri and Times New Roman are not allowable font types and any proposal which has used either of these font types within their submission will be rejected.

References and footnotes should also be at least 11 point font and should be in the same font type as the rest of the document. Headers and footers should not be used for references or information relating to the scientific case. Applicants referring to websites should note that referees may choose not to use them.

Applicants should ensure that their proposal conforms to all eligibility and submission rules, otherwise their proposal may be rejected without peer review. More details on NERC’s submission rules can be found in the:

Proposals for all topics up to £2 million 80% full economic cost should be submitted in standard grant format. The application document requirements are:

  • proposal form
  • case for support, incorporating the ‘previous track record’ (up to two sides A4) and ‘description of proposed research’ (up to eight sides A4)
  • outline data management plan (ODMP), up to one page of A4
  • justification of resources (up to two sides of A4) for all research organisations in the proposed grant
  • CVs for all named research staff including researcher co-investigators, visiting researchers, and principal and co-investigators named in the proposal (up to two sides A4 for each CV).
  • letters of support for project partners or other partners (up to two sides A4)
  • facility forms, as required, where the use of a NERC facility is being requested
  • non-UK components, if the proposal is being submitted under a lead agency agreement
  • proposal cover letter can be attached where required, for internal use only.

Proposals for ‘topic C: advances in halocarbon research to ensure success of the next phase of the Montreal Protocol in protecting the ozone layer and climate’ (up to £4 million 80% full economic cost) should be submitted in large grant format.

Please follow the requirements outlined in Section F of the NERC research grant and fellowships handbook.

Please note that on submission to council all non-PDF documents are converted to PDF, the use of non-standard fonts may result in errors or font conversion, which could affect the overall length of the document.

Additionally, where non-standard fonts are present, and even if the converted PDF document may look unaffected in the Je-S System, when it is imported into the research councils’ grants system some information may be removed.

We therefore recommend that where a document contains any non-standard fonts (for example, scientific notation, diagrams), the document should be converted to PDF prior to attaching it to the proposal.

No associated studentships can be requested under this funding opportunity.

How we will assess your application

Full proposals will undergo expert peer review including consideration by the highlight topic panel. NERC assessment process, including minimum and optimal review levels of grants.

The panel will allocate final scores and rank proposals based on research excellence and fit to scheme of the scientific objectives. This includes the appropriateness of the research proposed for the highlight topic.

The panel will also examine the strength of the management arrangements and whether the resources requested are appropriate.

The panel will be comprised of NERC Peer Review College members, augmented if necessary, by relevant experts from outside the college. The aim will be to use at least half from the core membership of the college, expertise and conflicts of interest allowing.

NERC will use the recommendations of the panel along with the overall funding opportunity requirements and the available budget in making the final funding decisions. The highest ranked proposals will be funded, irrespective of the highlight topic to which they apply. However, the funding limit specified for each highlight topic will be applied.

NERC will not fund two projects with overlapping research. In exceptional circumstances, where the top ranked projects in a topic were overlapping, NERC may fund the third-ranked project instead of the second-ranked project.

Feedback will be provided to both successful and unsuccessful applicants.

COVID-19 impacts

NERC and ESRC recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major interruptions and disruptions across our communities. We are committed to ensuring that individual applicants and their wider team, including partners and networks, are not penalised for any disruption to their careers such as:

  • breaks and delays
  • disruptive working patterns and conditions
  • the loss of on-going work
  • role changes that may have been caused by the pandemic.

Reviewers and panel members will be advised to consider the unequal impacts of the impact that COVID-19 related disruption might have had on the track record and career development of those individuals included in the proposal. They will be asked to consider the capability of the applicant and their wider team to deliver the research they are proposing.

Where disruptions have occurred applicants can highlight this within their application, if they wish, but there is no requirement to detail the specific circumstances that caused the disruption.

Contact details

Ask a question about this opportunity

For all queries please contact highlighttopics@nerc.ukri.org.

Additional info

Responsible research

Through our funding processes, we seek to make a positive contribution to society and the environment, not just through research outputs and outcomes but through the way in which research is conducted and facilities managed.

All NERC grant holders are to adopt responsible research practices as set out in the NERC responsible business statement (PDF, 462KB).

Responsible research is defined as reducing harm or enhancing benefit on the environment and society through effective management of research activities and facilities. Specifically, this covers:

  • the natural environment
  • the local community
  • equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

Grant holders should consider the responsible research context of their project, not the host institution as a whole, and take action to enhance their responsible research approach where practical and reasonable.

Applicants should demonstrate at appropriate points in the track record and case for support how responsible research has been considered and what action will be taken.

Knowledge exchange and impact

Knowledge exchange (KE) is vital to ensure that environmental research has wide benefits for society and should be an integral part of any research.

A separate ‘pathways to impact’ statement is not required, but applicants should still consider how they will or might achieve impact outside the scientific community and include this as part of their ‘case for support’. Impact activities do not have to be cost-incurring, but relevant costs can be included and must be fully justified within the ‘justification of resources’ statement.

Programme management

Project principal investigators are responsible for the management and delivery of their projects. Coordination between projects within a highlight topic is not required.

Reporting requirements

As for all NERC grant holders, there will be a requirement to report through the UKRI reporting system, Researchfish. This is required annually and continues for up to five years after funding ends. For details, see reporting your project’s outcomes.

For strategic research investments, including successful highlight topic grants, NERC additionally requires biannual progress reports.

Supporting documents

Notification of intent to submit

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