First highlight topic projects funded

26 October 2015

NERC is pleased to announce the first projects funded under the highlight topics route - one of our new ways of funding strategic research.

The projects align with NERC's strategic vision of putting environmental science at the heart of sustainable management of the planet. They will help address some of the key challenges facing society, shedding light on subjects like why the climate is warming at an uneven rate with pronounced pauses and surges, what happens to nanoparticles as they move around the environment and break down, and how we can use new genetic techniques to measure biodiversity.

Professor Iain Gillespie, NERC's director of science & innovation, said:

"It's fantastic to see science emerging to address these highlight topics, which will be central to delivering the priorities in the NERC strategy. This is a great first cohort of projects from our new funding route."

The eight successful projects are:

Highlight topic - Anomalous trends in surface temperature

  1. Securing multidisciplinary understanding and prediction of hiatus and surge events (SMURPHS) (£3 million, Professor Piers Forster, University of Leeds)

Highlight topic - Pathways, impacts and fate of nanomaterials

  1. Tracking relevant nanomaterial transformations, exposure, uptake and effects in freshwater and soil systems (£1 million, Dr David Spurgeon, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology)
  2. Distinguishing realistic environmental risks of nanoplastics by investigating fate and toxicology in real-world scenarios (£900,000, Dr Theodore Henry, Heriot-Watt University)
  3. Multimodal characterisation of nanomaterials in the environment (£1 million, Dr Alexandra Porter, Imperial College London)

Highlight topic - Dynamics of freshwater ecosystems

  1. Hydroscape: connectivity x stressor interactions in freshwater habitats (£2·9 million, Dr Nigel Willby, University of Stirling)

Highlight topic - eDNA: a tool for 21st century ecology

  1. Calibrating eDNA tools for biodiversity monitoring in the ocean (£1 million, Dr Willie Wilson, Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science)
  2. Understanding the ecological relevance of eDNA in freshwater lotic ecosystems [flowing environments such as rivers and streams] (£1 million, Dr Simon Creer, Bangor University)
  3. SeaDNA - Assessing marine biodiversity and structure using environmental DNA: from groundtruthing to food web structure and stability (£1 million, Dr Martin Genner, University of Bristol)

Figures are 80% of full economic cost.

The aims of all the projects are an excellent match to the challenges and opportunities identified in the highlight topics and will move the science on swiftly in these important areas.

Professor Angela Hatton, chair of NERC's Science Board, said:

"Highlight topics are designed to give the scientific community a greater role in identifying areas that need strategic research funding. This first group of projects will provide important knowledge to help society deal with problems including biodiversity loss, nanoparticle pollution and environmental change."

Professor Graham Underwood, chairman of NERC's Strategic Programme Advisory Group (SPAG), said:

"The environmental science community responded magnificently to the challenges of the first highlight topics and these projects are well-aligned with the aims of SPAG. I'd like to thank all the applicants and those involved in the assessment that selected these excellent projects."

Projects were selected by peer review from a high-quality field with a success rate of 29%. The design of the scheme, with competition within and between highlight topics, meant that a project addressing the 'integrated dynamics of natural capital systems' could not be supported in this round.

The second highlight topic call is currently running, with proposals under peer review, and the third call is expected in spring 2016 once SPAG considers the latest ideas submitted by the community.