Environmental science for a changing world: £100m of research funding announced

Last week the National Environment Research Council released their new strategic direction, outlining their vision to promote the use of sound environmental science at the heart of responsible management of our planet. The strategy entitled ‘The Business of the Environment’ has a strong focus on cross disciplinary research and developing working partnerships with business and government to develop knowledge which can benefit UK innovation, economic growth and societal well being.

The goal laid out in the strategy is to fund research that helps ‘understand and predict how our planet works’, and ‘manage our environment responsibly as we pursue new ways of living, doing business, escaping poverty and growing economies’. This means both long-term and discovery science needs to be pursued alongside the applied research aimed at directly addressing current challenges such as sustainable urban living and management of ecosystem services.

To back up their commitment to achieving these goals, NERC also announced a renewed investment of £100m to continue funding Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTP) which specialise in training environmental science PhD students. This investment across the next 5 years will provide funding for 240 new PhD students each year. The DTP network will feature 38 universities organised into 15 partnerships, along with non-academic organisations including businesses, policy-makers and charity organisations. While 55 universities previously received DTP funding, NERC claim this reduced strategy is part of a council wide agenda intended to improve the quality of its responsive mode PhD provision by introducing more competitiveness between groups.

The DTPs will offer postgraduate studentships and training across the full range of NERC’s disciplines, such as natural resource management, fossil fuel extraction and pollinators in the agri-food industry. Another area of applied science funded by NERC is the understanding and resilience to environmental hazards such as flooding and extreme weather, as covered by the BES in our Ecological Issues series.

There is also a strong focus on strategic research programs that promote innovation through partnerships with businesses, providing the opportunity for partners to co-fund and increase the number of studentships available. In a bid to increase the impact of environmental science and produce students with high degrees of employability outside of academia, 30% of the funded PhD students will work with and undertake research projects “directly relevant to” the non-academic partners.

Some commentators in the environmental sector consider the traditional framework of research funding to be too restrictive to the requirements of interdisciplinary environmental research.  As such, the NERC DTP network is encouraged to promote interconnectivity and to pool knowledge between partnerships, developing integrative ‘learning communities’. This focus on collaboration mirrors the holistic nature of environmental science and it is hoped this will lead to the development of an environmental knowledge base which is more easily applicable to real world situations and challenges.