Strategic research design

How NERC plans strategic research

NERC's strategy 'The Business of the Environment' identifies where research is most needed; to benefit from natural resources and ecosystem services, build resilience to environmental hazards and manage environmental change.

To provide the understanding to meet these challenges NERC must work with the broad environmental science community to identify priority research areas, topics and partnerships to take forward through our strategic research activities.

Environmental researchers, research users and NERC's funding partners can all play a role in helping to develop NERC's strategic research agenda. The process for identifying strategic research priorities thus is both 'top down' and 'bottom up'. NERC is inviting our communities to bring us appropriate ideas that could lead to new strategic research priorities for investment. For more information please see guidance on developing and submitting ideas for strategic research.

Decisions to allocate funding to a new strategic research priority are made through one of three routes; the pathway used depends on considerations such as the nature of the research challenge, its scale, complexity and timeliness, as well as the immediacy of the decision making:

  • Joint strategic response (JSR) is aimed at providing a timely response to opportunities for NERC to partner with research funders such as other research councils and government departments. NERC anticipates that its funding will be at least matched by the partner organisation, and that the partnership will be characterised by jointly agreed programme goals and peer review mechanisms. The size of the program will vary according to the opportunity.

  • Strategic programme areas (SPAs) are major activities that address complex science questions in which the research is expected to be large-scale and complex, logistically challenging, and/or there are significant opportunities for partnership development. They will require a community effort to develop and deliver. The research programmes might typically range in size from £5 million to £20 million depending on their scope and partnership funding.

  • Highlight topics (HT) focus strategic research on defined topic areas and can be worth up to £4 million and last up to four years.

For all funding routes, future financial commitments are allocated upon consideration of financial headroom throughout the duration of the proposed activity. NERC's chief executive, as advised by NERC's Executive Funding Group, has delegated financial authority to allocate the JSR budget. Science Board is responsible for HT funding allocations and for recommending SPAs to Council, who make the decision on allocating funds. The NERC Executive Funding Group, Science Board, and Council all have an overview of NERC's strategic research investments and available headroom to inform these investment decisions.

Below you will find a graph detailing NERC's strategic research expenditure and headroom in millions of pounds, published in March 2017.

Graph showing total NERC strategic research expenditure falling over the period 2016-17 to 2019-20, with increasing headroom as current investments come to an end