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Independent Research Fellowships

The NERC Independent Research Fellowship (IRF) Scheme is designed to develop scientific leadership among the most promising early-career environmental scientists, by giving all fellows five years' support, which will allow them sufficient time to develop their research programmes and to gain international recognition.

As part of this scheme, NERC will expand its fellowship networking and training activities, working with host institutions, to support the development of future leaders in NERC science.

The next closing date for NERC Independent Research Fellowships is 4 October 2016. Applicants can begin submission of their proposals on the Je-S System from 1 June 2016; prior to this date, the call will not appear on the Je-S system.

Independent Research Fellowships 2016 panel dates (PDF, 8KB)

Application and assessment process

In order to identify future science leaders, the assessment process will concentrate on applicants' research potential, with track record assessed in a way that is appropriate to career stage. Applicants will be expected to:

  • demonstrate their research vision and philosophy and outline ways in which their research could be developed over the five year fellowship;
  • explain how they will contribute to the international research area and interact with the leading international groups in their field;
  • explain how they will enable the potential economic or societal benefits of their research to be realised.

In order to demonstrate a commitment to the development of NERC IRFs, the Head of Department of the host institution will be required to demonstrate:

  • the availability of structured institutional support, including infrastructure and facilities, funds to support research, and access to PhD students;
  • support for personal development of the fellow, including mentoring, appropriate review, and training courses.

Case study - Dan Smale, Marine Biological Association

Dan Smale

Dan Smale

Please summarise your background prior to applying for a NERC IRF award relevant to your successful application.

I graduated with first-class honours in marine biology from Plymouth University, before undertaking my PhD with the British Antarctic Survey. This involved living and working in Antarctica for 2·5 years to examine the effects of iceberg groundings on marine biodiversity. After this I worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Western Australia, for four years, developing indicators for Ecosystems-Based Fisheries Management and investigating climate change impacts on kelp forest ecosystems. I later secured my first fellowship, a Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship, which allowed me to return to the UK to continue my research on ecological responses to ocean warming. After five years of post-doctoral research, resulting in three book chapters and 30 publications in journals including Science and Nature Climate Change, I was awarded a NERC Independent Research Fellowship hosted at the Marine Biological Association of the UK.

Why did you choose to apply for an IRF?

I believe that the benefits of an IRF are three-fold. First, it offers complete freedom to pursue my own research interests and to develop novel approaches and technologies, without the constraints of deliverable-driven project research. Second, the IRF provides funding for five years, which is enough time to develop as an independent investigator and begin to build a research group, which in turn provides the opportunity to address some key knowledge gaps in marine ecology. Third, the scheme is well-funded and provides the resources necessary to combine analytical techniques with large-scale fieldwork, which is needed to better understand climate change impacts on marine ecosystems.

What are the main research goals of your IRF?

Anthropogenic climate change is rapidly changing the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems. As well as increases in average temperatures, the frequency and magnitude of extreme climatic events is increasing. The main objectives of my IRF are to examine spatial and temporal patterns in the occurrence of marine heatwaves (extreme oceanic warming events), and to quantify their impacts on populations, communities and ecosystems. I am doing this by combining observational studies, experimental manipulations and analyses of historical time series.

What notable outcomes, have arisen from your IRF to date? (These could include academic achievements or societal and economic outcomes).

The IRF has allowed me to establish an international, multidisciplinary working group, comprising ecologists, oceanographers, climatologists and fisheries scientists, with the aim of better understanding the patterns, drivers and impacts of marine heatwaves. It has also allowed me to continue investigating the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, which has led to papers in journals such as Science, Ecology Letters and Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Our research on the impacts of a marine heatwave was also included in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report.

Do you have any advice for potential applicants?

An IRF provides an outstanding opportunity to pursue your own research interests and develop a career as an independent scientist. By their very nature, however, the awards are highly competitive and my principal advice would be to seek feedback on any proposal or idea from as many mentors and colleagues as possible, and to accept the feedback positively and constructively to improve and develop the application. Also, due to their competitiveness it is important to stay determined and focused, as many IRF recipients are not successful in the first instance. Good ideas tend to develop and mature into great ideas with time.