CDT priority area scope
NERC is seeking to invest in a CDT in mineral resources for the energy transition.
Mineral resources underpin all manufacturing and infrastructure development in the UK and are essential to achieve the global energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy (see GOV.UK: the ten point plan for a green industrial revolution).
Many of the minerals required for clean energy technologies, from the lithium, cobalt and graphite in electric car batteries to the rare earth elements in wind turbines, are designated critical. This is because of their importance and potential disruption of supply (see British Geological Survey: UK criticality assessment of technology critical minerals and metals).
The UK’s role in resources is significant, as well as importing 40 megatonnes of metal per year: UK-listed companies are responsible for 50% of the world’s iron production and 30% of its copper. The London Metal Exchange handles $10 trillion in trade per year, and the UK has more than 5,000 companies in the mining value chain.
Global demand and international competition for technology-critical mineral resources is expected to quadruple by 2040. Current demand is already outstripping the rate of mineral production. We face a critical resource challenge in securing the supply and reducing the reliance on the minerals needed to achieve net zero and protect the future growth and resilience of the UK economy.
The UK critical minerals strategy sets out UK government ambitions to ensure that the minerals we will need to power our world in the future can be made available. These would be in the quantities needed, extracted in responsible ways, and supported by well-functioning and transparent markets. However, the skills base for minerals, particularly in areas such as mining and mineral processing, may be at risk.
Therefore, this is a critical time to ensure that a highly skilled research and innovation pipeline is available to meet the demand for interdisciplinary expertise across the whole mineral value chain.
A CDT investment will enable the UK skills base to realise the required step-changes and provide the interdisciplinary solutions needed. This will support domestic mineral industries and UK companies operating around the world to responsibly source the mineral resources required for the global energy transition. There is a need to:
- find, identify, and characterise the mineral resources we need for the energy transition, including in sensitive and extreme environments, and further our understanding of the processes which form concentrated mineral deposits
- extract required mineral resources using responsible methods with minimal environmental and social harm, including through the reduction of energy and water consumption across mineral value chains and the remediation of post-mine landscapes
- embed circular economy approaches within the minerals sector, including developing efficient processing and refining techniques, reducing or reusing waste, and designing products for end-of-life recovery
- increase transparency within global value chains to understand mineral flows and the impacts, vulnerabilities, and opportunities in the minerals sector in relation to trade, policy, security, and environmental leadership, including the development of new regulations, standards and frameworks to achieve truly sustainable approaches to securing, recovering, recycling and reuse of mineral resources
Mineral resource expertise in academia, policy, or industry, needs diverse and holistic training that develops and broadens skills and knowledge across multiple discipline boundaries. This approach is required to secure responsibly sourced resources to standards that have positive impacts on the environment and society.
The CDT will foster a community of interdisciplinary challenge-led researchers who will identify and deliver ‘real world’ integrated solutions, based on the strongest evidence, that put an environmental approach at their core.
There is NERC funding for a notional eight studentships a year (with three years of new student intake that is 24 studentships in total). An expectation is that this funding will be used to leverage additional investment (either cash or in-kind contributions) from multiple stakeholders including from government, business, and industry.
The CDT model is designed to support a translational approach by encouraging academic and non-academic partners to unite around common challenges. It is strongly recommended that the CDT should integrate end-user involvement from across the mineral value chain in developing and delivering the training required.
Innovate UK’s two year, £15 million CLIMATES programme, focused on circular critical materials supply chains for rare earth elements, is an advocate of this CDT opportunity.
The Innovate UK programme team would like to work with the successful bidders on an advisory basis, to ensure that this important skills and talent initiative is highlighted and supported by UK industry. NERC will facilitate post-award engagement between Innovate UK and the successful CDT.
Training provided by the CDT must be relevant to the ambitions to address environmental and net zero challenges. The training must also deliver positive outcomes for business and the environment that minimise the environmental impacts of consumption articulated within the NERC delivery plan and UKRI building a green future strategic theme.
The CDT will contribute towards building a strong interdisciplinary community of UK mineral resource expertise. Therefore, training should be at the interface between environmental sciences and other disciplines where the solutions to many major mineral resource research and innovation challenges exist.
Training delivered by this CDT must align with the areas specifically outlined in this opportunity but may:
- build on existing training infrastructure
- take advantage of the networks developed through existing and past relevant UKRI-funded interdisciplinary investments
The CDT will focus training on developing, and strengthening, interdisciplinary approaches to deliver new understanding of how mining can be revolutionised. Therefore, making it better, smarter and more reconstructive in its approach to secure mineral resources responsibly, with environmental, economic and societal benefits.
Research and training skills that this CDT will deliver are needed to provide greater knowledge of the implications and potential feasibility (environmental, economic and otherwise) of exploration and mining of new environments (for example, ultra-deep subsurface, polar and submarine).
This will also require the development of new technology and data driven approaches (such as geophysics and earth observation), and new methods of extraction to revolutionise the location, mining and refining of mineral resources.
Improved methods of mineral processing and recovery are urgently needed to reduce waste and achieve effective management and efficient use of mineral resources, including through increased reuse and recycling of mineral stocks already in circulation.
Harnessing big data approaches to allow mineral flows to be tracked across value chains (meaning, from extraction through each subsequent stage of highly complex life cycles) will generate new evidence, understanding and technological advances. These will catalyse innovative circular economy approaches and enable more transparent, more resilient and more responsible international markets.
The mineral sector needs to transition towards a reconstructive approach, net positive for nature and delivering sustainable post-mining landscapes from projects with exemplary environmental, social and governance credentials. To achieve this, it is necessary to develop transparent regulation, policy, standards and frameworks alongside new technologies and techniques to secure, recover, recycle and reuse mineral resources.
Critically, this requires a step-change in the capability of the UK’s interdisciplinary resource community and in collaborative working to break down barriers between academic disciplines, and between science, industry and policy.
The CDT will create a highly skilled workforce with expertise that can be used across the wider energy and environment sectors, as well as filling skills gaps in the minerals sector. This will equip the industry with the skills needed to reduce the environmental impact of mineral exploration and extraction.
Production, stewardship and use of mineral resources requires a wide range of skills including, but not limited to:
- metallurgy, including extractive metallurgy and geometallurgy
- ecology, including natural capital and ecosystem services
- environmental sciences, including monitoring and managing environmental impacts
- chemical engineering or refining
- material science
- law and governance
- economics, including value chain analysis
- environmental informatics, data collection, data management and data analysis including distributed ledger technologies (such as Blockchain), resource analysis and modelling
- remote sensing
- sustainable development, including relating to artisanal and small-scale mining
- social sciences, including societal change dynamics such as principles of behaviour, community change and social justice
Applications must outline a coherent training programme through which students will both undertake individual research projects and receive cohort-level training, in cross-cutting skills relevant to the areas above. You should design and justify an appropriate programme for your CDT, there is no expectation that all students should receive training in all areas.
While the development of a skilled research community is core to this training need, this community must apply the acquired knowledge and use holistic approaches developed to deliver ‘real world’ solutions across entire mineral value chains as a key training and output of a CDT.
Training opportunities are therefore required in innovation uptake, and the ability to take on secondments, interdisciplinary exchanges and technology transfer opportunities must be provided.
Individual student research projects need to be interdisciplinary with a focus that is at least 50% NERC remit. Through the wider training programme all students must be exposed to techniques, perspectives, and context from all the relevant disciplines to gain an interdisciplinary training experience.
Other training requirements
In addition to the research training remit identified above, there are a number of transferable professional, technical and personal development training requirements that must be delivered by the CDT funded through this opportunity:
- access for all CDT students to placements, internships or other relevant work experience opportunities (this includes UKRI policy internships). This does not mean that all students must complete a placement, but that these opportunities must be available to all, and training programmes should be designed with the flexibility to enable students to undertake such work experience opportunities if they wish to do so
- explicit careers training and continuous professional development relevant to both academic and non-academic career trajectories. Careers training must take place suitably early in students’ training to enable it to inform their choice of training opportunities
- strong end-user involvement with all levels of CDT training
- dedicated professional skills, and innovation or translation training available to all CDT students
- access for all students to appropriate data skills training
- opportunities to network across Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP), CDT and research council cohorts and gain multidisciplinary perspectives
- training needs analysis or equivalent for all students at the outset of training, and the opportunity to discuss individual training requirements throughout their doctorate
- discussion of training needs and available opportunities
- these should take place with end-users as appropriate and be placed within the context of potential future careers
- clear guidance and training on mental health awareness as part of CDT induction process for staff and students, outlining how to access support for mental health issues encountered during the doctorate
- it is important to show how this will be implemented and managed by the CDT across hosting partner institutions
Funding opportunity requirements
Capability to deliver
You must provide evidence within your applications that you offer sufficient high quality research capacity to deliver training in the areas specified in the remit of the priority area. You should also justify your choice of partnership which can include international collaborative partners as appropriate to deliver the objectives of the training programme.
While research capability is an important aspect of a successful CDT, the assessment process will balance this against the full assessment criteria for the opportunity.
Collaboration with end-users and non-higher education institution (HEI) partners
Collaboration with a variety of non-HEI partners is vital for:
- delivery of excellent multidisciplinary training
- framing research questions to ensure production of research outputs with real-world applications of direct relevance and use to the environmental science community as a whole
Collaboration with end-users and other non-HEI partners must therefore form a significant part of the CDT’s training programme, at both the design and delivery stage. Successful applications will demonstrate clearly how students will benefit from engagement with multiple types of organisations, on both an individual and a cohort level, via a variety of mechanisms.
In outlining their approach to engaging with stakeholders, applications must evidence a track record of collaborative working and describe a coherent strategy for engaging with multiple stakeholders.
An expectation of the CDT is that the NERC funding will be used to leverage additional investment (either cash or in-kind support) from multiple stakeholders.
In addition, applicants:
- should ensure that a number of studentships offered by the CDT are CASE or ‘collaborative’ studentships (see the following ‘CASE studentships’ and ‘Collaborative (non-CASE) studentships’ sections)
- must embed collaboration with end-users through mechanisms in addition to CASE (for example, placements, training courses or site visits) for all doctoral students within their wider training programme
You must demonstrate clearly within their applications how this will be achieved.
The CDT must ensure that a minimum of 25% of the notional studentships are delivered as formal CASE studentships with a broad range of eligible partners. It is important that these requirements are adhered to, and compliance will therefore be monitored via reporting processes. You must demonstrate in your application the mechanisms you will use to ensure the CASE conversion requirement is met.
CASE studentships must be delivered in collaboration with non-academic partners from industry, business, public and the third or civil sectors. Organisations eligible to receive research grant funding will not be eligible to act as a CASE partner. This includes research institutes and independent research organisations (IROs).
Check eligible research institutes, IROs and Catapult centres.
As an exception to the above, public sector research establishments (PSREs) are eligible to act as CASE partners. As already noted, PSREs wishing to be involved in an application are required to choose whether they wish to do so as either a hosting partner or a CASE partner.
Collaborative (non-CASE) studentships
In addition to CASE studentships, any number of CDT studentships may be ‘collaborative’ (meaning, have no formal partnership requirements or project partners not eligible to be CASE partners).
These collaborative studentships will also be monitored and recorded through reporting processes and will be formally recognised as a success metric as part of the monitoring of CDT performance. Applications must describe how such collaborative relationships will be developed and maintained, and the benefits they will provide to students’ training.
The CDT must have strong leadership and management. It should have both a lead operational manager and steering committee or management board.
The steering committee or management board should be comprised of all hosting CDT partners and must also have representation from relevant end-user organisations and from both NERC and Innovate UK. It will have overall responsibility for the effective governance of the CDT and its relationship with NERC and provide a strategic needs framework to aid the prioritisation and development of doctoral projects.
The CDT must demonstrate that robust and transparent governance arrangements will be in place from the outset of the CDT, which may include the development of formal partnership agreements, communication plans and systems for monitoring the CDT’s overall progress and success.
Applicants are strongly encouraged to incorporate CDT students into the management and running of activities within the CDT. Where appropriate, formal partnership agreements must be in place ahead of the start of the first student cohort.
The CDT must also commit adequate support for appropriate administrative resource, and applications must be explicit about how administrative structures will be managed and funded.
Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI)
We must ensure that we support the most talented students whatever their background and regardless of where and when they undertook their first degree.
To ensure that this happens, we require that EDI principles are embedded at all levels and in all aspects of research and training practice in the CDT. You should refer to NERC’s best practice principles in recruitment and training at doctoral level. The successful CDT will be expected to implement these best practice principles.
NERC expects applicants to think imaginatively and demonstrate in their applications their strategy for EDI to enable wide participation and promote postgraduate research to a diverse base of talented graduate students. In particular, consideration should be given to training programme flexibility and the ability to address individual students’ needs. This aspect of the application will be assessed through the Partnership Operational Management criterion.
The successful CDT’s strategies and commitments in this area will be reviewed regularly through a reporting and monitoring programme. It will be mandatory for the successful CDT to collect and report on the characteristics of the applicant and student population.
Read about UKRI’s work on EDI.
NERC will award eight notional studentships a year for three years.
A notional studentship consists of sufficient funds to meet the annual UKRI minimum stipend and fee levels, plus additional research and management costs as outlined below, for four full years of doctoral study.
It is expected that individual students will undertake training over a variety of timeframes (between three and four years as appropriate, depending on the discipline, project and the student’s experience and knowledge).
The indicative funding per notional studentship is provided below. The student stipend and fees are indicative estimates only, based on the 2022 to 2023 figures multiplied by four, and excluding London allowance (at the time of award, stipend and fees will be indexed to accommodate rises in the minimum stipend and fees levels over the lifetime of the award).
The research training support grant (RTSG) and management costs are fixed:
- student stipend: £70,672
- fees: £18,384
- research training support grant: £11,000
- management costs: £1,500
- total: £101,556
CDTs will have flexibility in how they use the funding awarded (subject to the normal UKRI terms and conditions of training grants), as long as the minimum numbers of students are supported each year (the minimum being the number of notional studentships awarded).
Read about meeting UKRI terms and conditions for funding.
Given the flexibility in use of funding, it will be possible for the CDT to use the training grant to support more than the minimum number of students each year.
This could be achieved by having students undertake training over a variety of timeframes and by co-funding students from other sources. Students must be funded at least 50% by a NERC training grant to be classed as a NERC student.
It is strongly recommended that, wherever possible, co-funding from non-UKRI sources is used to co-fund students (rather than wholly fund individual students) so that all CDT students have equal access to the opportunities available to UKRI-funded students and can be registered on Je-S (with NERC, UKRI) for reporting purposes.
In situations where it is not possible to part-fund students, the CDT must ensure suitable measures are in place to ensure those students’ training experiences are comparable and all relevant data are provided outside of Je-S reporting.
Implementation and delivery
The CDT award will provide funding for three years of new student intake. This is six years of funding in total, from the start of academic year 2024 to 2025.
Legacy and impact
CDTs are supported with the intention of developing a legacy of training excellence from a directed investment. Applications must demonstrate consideration of the legacy and impacts of the CDT beyond the lifetime of UKRI investment.
It is NERC policy to increase the visibility and awareness of environmental data and to improve their management as a resource.
The CDT funded through this opportunity should therefore ensure that relevant NERC Environmental Data Centres are aware of significant datasets generated, or to be compiled, under the award so that their long-term stewardship can be planned.
Read about NERC environmental data centres.
Funding for NERC services and facilities cannot be requested as part of a training grant application. Students wishing to use NERC services and facilities must fund the costs of doing so using RTSG funds or gain access to facilities through other routes.
Anyone wishing to use a NERC service or facility must contact the facility to seek agreement that they can provide the service required.
Read about NERC’s facilities, ships, aircraft and stations.
Reporting requirements and monitoring
There will be mandatory annual reporting requirements for the CDT, in addition to the standard studentships information captured through the Je-S studentship details functionality.
This information will be used to report on the success of our training investments to the government and other partners.
Information provided will also be used to provide assurance that the CDT is being managed appropriately and is progressing in accordance with its original funding application and the aims and expectations outlined in this funding opportunity.
This additional reporting will take the form of an annual return.
Indicative reporting headings include:
- information regarding student recruitment (including demographics of unsuccessful applicants)
- information regarding the CDT student population, including those funded by alternative sources to the CDT award
- CASE studentships and other collaborative partner engagement
- information regarding partners’ in-kind investment and co-funding
- cohort-level training activities
- cross-CDT and DTP training activities
- CDT-level success stories and impacts (individual student research outputs will be captured through Researchfish)
In addition to annual reports, NERC will conduct regular visits to the CDT. The CDT will also be expected to respond to other reporting requirements when requested.
Through our funding, we want to make a positive contribution to society and the environment. We will achieve this through research outcomes and the way in which research is conducted.
If you are successful, you will need to adopt responsible research practices, as set out in UKRI’s responsible research policy and the NERC responsible business statement.
Responsible research is defined as reducing harm/enhancing benefit on the environment and society through effective management of research activities and facilities. Specifically, this covers:
- the natural environment
- the local community
- diversity and inclusion
Grant holders should consider responsible research context of their project, not the host institution as a whole. Further, grant holders should take action to enhance their responsible research approach where practical and reasonable.