This programme will address a significant gap in our understanding of how pollutants enter, transform and interact within rivers, and with the ecosystems that rivers support.
It will consider how the infiltration and movement of pollutants will be amplified or mitigated by a changing hydrological cycle induced by climate change and other catchment changes.
Through the improvement and development of tools to monitor and measure contamination, as well as collaboration and engagement with key stakeholders, it will help the development of management and mitigation strategies for improving or sustaining the quality of rivers across the UK.
The overarching programme will enable transformative research in three thematic areas:
- better understanding of how climate and catchment changes are affecting the sources and processes by which pollutants are entering, mixing, being transported through and leaving river systems
- investigating the impact of mixtures of chemical (and biological) contaminants and their exposure regimes on the quality, ecology and biodiversity of UK river ecosystems
- enabling and informing the development of better plans for adaptation, mitigation and detection of risks associated with declining river quality, now and in the future.
Projects must address all three thematic areas.
Projects could choose to take a process-based approach (for example, considering agricultural runoff, sewage disposal into rivers or urban runoff) or to focus on certain mixtures or mixture regimes of contaminants.
Research should take a systems-wide approach and outcomes where possible should be applicable across the UK.
We hope to fund a range of projects through this programme, covering different elements and drivers of river quality in the UK.
Better understanding of how climate and catchment changes are affecting the sources and processes by which pollutants are entering, mixing, being transported through and leaving river systems
This theme encompasses exploration of how contaminants that degrade freshwater ecosystems (for example, chemicals, novel contaminants, sediments, pathogens and heavy metals) are entering river systems, including their groundwaters, and their dynamics within and fate thereafter.
This includes consideration of how emerging hydrological models and observations can help to better understand how fluxes and pools have been transformed by:
- the spread and intensification of agriculture
- atmospheric pollution
- human waste, domestic and industrial pollutants
- changes in UK weather patterns.
Elements of this theme might consider how climate change and other catchment changes might further affect contaminant loading to river systems and the fate of those contaminants (for example, through flash flooding, or under drought conditions).
Possible research questions include:
- how do pollutants, chemicals, novel contaminants, sediments, pathogens and heavy metals, for example, make their way into river systems
- how are changing climatic conditions impacting the hydrological cycle in terms of pollutants moving through or interacting with the environment
- how can emerging hydrological models and observations help us to better understand how pools and fluxes of macronutrients might be transformed by the processes
- how do differing pollutants and mixtures of pollutants flow into groundwater and river systems
- how will climate change further impact pollutant loading in river systems?
Investigating the impact of mixtures of chemical (and biological) pollutants and their exposure regimes on the quality, ecology and biodiversity of UK freshwater ecosystems
The pollution stressors affecting UK river systems could have positive or negative effects on water quality depending on their location, as well as their interaction with other stressors.
This theme should allow projects to capitalise on current advances in technology as well as accelerating advances in the collection and analysis of data to identify types of pollutants and mixtures and their impact on UK rivers.
We are particularly interested in how more prevalent combinations of pollutants in UK rivers interact and the impacts on freshwater quality, ecology and biodiversity as a result.
Under this theme, projects should consider how residence time, repeated exposure and dynamics of pollutant mixtures affect their overall impact. This could include consideration of microbial activity in sediment and hydro-biochemical interactions.
This theme could also investigate the impact of contaminants on essential ecosystem services in the future, including water security, and human health and wellbeing.
Possible research questions include:
- how can chemical dynamics and high-risk pollutant mixtures or hotspots be identified, and how can combined applications be used to predict how different chemicals or groups of pollutants and their impacts may change over time as a result of climate (temperature) and hydrological (timings, intensities of drought and flooding) change
- how are changes in the water cycle and ambient temperature affecting how pollutant cocktails and shifting microbial populations are impacting freshwater ecosystems
- what are the advances in the collection and analysis of data needed to aid understanding and prediction of the current and future health (beyond ecological status) of varying river systems across the UK
- what are the more prevalent combinations of pollutants in UK river systems, do they interact, co-transport and co-bioaccumulate and what are the subsequent impacts on river aquatic ecology under current and future climate conditions
- what are the impacts of temperature, flooding and drought conditions on pollutant residence times, organism fitness and resilience (of controls), and on the impacts of repeated exposure and dynamics of pollutants or pollutant mixtures on river quality, ecology and biodiversity
- which mixtures are causing the most damage to river microbial activity and species sensitivity (aquatic organisms and plant life) across catchments and what does this mean for essential ecosystem services (including water security, and human health and wellbeing) in the future?
Enabling and informing the development of better plans for adaptation, mitigation and detection of risks associated with declining river quality, now and in the future
This theme is focused on improving and developing new tools to enable us to better predict and monitor changes in river quality in real time and at scale.
Projects should consider how their research could support and inform the development of new policy around regulation, management and sanctioning to improve water quality and security regionally or nationally. This might include the development of novel sensors and remote sensing technology.
Possible research challenges could include:
- pilots developed with the combined application of non-target pollutant screening, insights from DNA or eDNA methods, integrated chemical and biological measurements and artificial intelligence or machine-learning to interrogate large datasets in order to make best use of long-term monitoring
- research that can be upscaled to improve river and freshwater quality and security regionally or nationally and used to inform policy direction in those areas
- research to better understand the driving factors of changes in river and freshwater quality (climate, land-use, agricultural practices, industrial activity, cultural and behavioural attitudes, impacts and interactions of pollutants) and how they will continue to elicit change over time
- deeper understanding of how the hydrological cycle is changing, and is likely to continue to change over time, and will be utilised to develop and improve tools and resources to mitigate against future risks to ecosystems
- research to build upon more efficient and effective real time or remote monitoring capabilities in rivers and catchments (upstream and downstream of discharges) and wastewater, particularly for emerging contaminants.
All projects should address multiple and interacting stressors as well as consider catchment-wide flows and dynamics.
Where appropriate, we encourage interdisciplinary approaches, bringing together relevant experts from environmental science and other relevant disciplines and sectors in the UK that are needed to deliver the integrated cross-sectoral research required.
Projects should increase our understanding of how chemical (and biological) contaminants enter, transform, and interact within river systems, how that impacts on the quality of the ecosystems that they support, as well as how we can better adapt and mitigate future risks to river quality related to climate and other changes impacting the hydrological cycle.
We encourage innovative collaborations including those with intervention-focused organisations and practitioners, creating a community of researchers and funding projects that span the three thematic areas of the programme.
Collaborations should include steer from the UK government, devolved administrations, policy, regulators and industry, to ensure that they enable sustained change and long-term benefits. Projects must work closely with relevant stakeholders during the design phase and throughout the lifespan of the project.
Funded projects must engage and collaborate with one another, and this will be facilitated through a dedicated Programme Champion aligned to the programme.
Further details about the Programme Champion can be found in the ‘additional information’ section.
This work will be UK-focused and predominantly address environmental science research questions. However, projects could include research outputs that may support learning internationally and have relevance globally.
Existing research and models
You should ensure you are aware of relevant previous and current research in the field (funded by NERC and others) to avoid duplication and to ensure that your proposal is focused on delivering world-leading research. Relevant NERC programmes and activities include the following.
Emerging risks of chemicals in the environment
The area of investment and support emerging risks of chemicals in the environment aims to conduct research to predict how the environment and its functioning will respond to chemical exposure.
The anticipated outcome is a transformation in the way chemical risk assessment is considered, to move towards an ecosystems approach with greater ecological relevance.
Ecotoxicology risk assessment towards sustainable chemical use (ECORISC): centre for doctoral training
ECORISC (University of York) is a six-year NERC-funded centre for doctoral training.
The centre combines mechanistic understanding, theoretical advances and modelling approaches to contribute to the development of predictive risk assessment frameworks that will allow society to benefit from chemical use while ensuring protection of the natural environment, now and in the future.
Hydro-JULES (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) is a NERC national capability-funded research activity. These activities help the UK to support national strategic needs, respond to emergencies and deliver world-leading environmental science.
Hydro-JULES will build a three-dimensional community model of the terrestrial water cycle to underpin hydrological research in the UK.
Hydro-JULES is delivered by UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) in partnership with British Geological Survey (BGS) and National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS).
It is not a requirement for UKCEH to be partners on a proposal in order for applicants to make use of the Hydro-JULES model or outputs.
Projects funded under this programme will:
- strengthen our understanding of the sources and behaviour of pollutants within river systems
- increase our knowledge and understanding of how pollutants are changing or accumulating within the environment and the impacts of those changes
- help to reduce the pollutant loading in river systems
- have the potential to influence policy in connection with regulations for local agricultural practices, waste-water organisations, industries and domestic use
- inform what is needed to improve the ecological status of river systems in the UK
- inform better adaptation and mitigation of risks which will improve essential ecosystems services such as cleaner air, extreme weather mitigation and links to improved human mental and physical wellbeing.
The NERC data policy must be adhered to, and an outline data management plan produced as part of proposal development.
NERC will pay the data centre directly on behalf of the programme for archival and curation services, but you should ensure that you request sufficient resource to cover preparation of data for archiving by the research team.
Successful applicants will be required to report research outcomes on Researchfish in line with standard UKRI terms and conditions. This is required annually and continues for up to five years post-grant end.
For strategic research investments, NERC additionally requires biannual progress reports. You will also be required to provide progress reports to the Freshwater Quality Programme Advisory Group (see the ‘delivery and coordination’ section).
In addition, you should produce a mid-term report covering both progress to date and proposed work plans to ensure the successful completion of your project.
Delivery and coordination
A Programme Champion will be appointed to provide a coordination function and to ensure the effective delivery of the programme. They will be advised by the Freshwater Quality Programme Advisory Group (PAG).
The Programme Champion will lead on critical tasks as defined by NERC and the PAG. They will not be eligible to bid for research funding from the programme.
The PAG will be appointed by NERC and will include members who have experience in developing and delivering similar programmes as well as representation from a range of stakeholders (including policy and regulators).
The PAG will, among other things:
- assess the progress of all funded projects every six months
- maximise opportunities to secure stronger outcomes from the programme’s funded projects.
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.
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 just the host institution as a whole, and take action to enhance their responsible research approach where practical and reasonable.
Proposals can request funding for up to 48 months and must commence by 1 November 2022. The full economic cost for each project will be up to £2 million (of which NERC will contribute 80% of the total). We anticipate funding between four to five projects.