A sea change in support

'Themed' funds will aid research on the water cycle, climate change, earth science and more. Zoe Corbyn reports

December 11, 2008

Ocean acidification and environmental nanoscience are among the diverse topics addressed in a new series of research action plans announced by the Natural Environment Research Council.

NERC has earmarked about £100 million over the next two years for the seven long-awaited "theme action plans" released this week.

In a first tranche of funding, more than £50 million will be split across seven areas of research, including the sustainable use of natural resources, natural hazards, the climate system and earth-system science. Other research areas will focus on biodiversity, technologies and environment, and pollution and human health.

Philip Newton, NERC's director of science and delivery, said: "The theme action plans give researchers foresight of the sorts of targeted research programmes and related activities that we are going to be undertaking and publishing opportunities to bid for."

The details of the new research programmes are still being developed and will be introduced to NERC's portfolio over the coming months. Each project will last between three and five years.

The largest slice of funding, some £11 million, will focus on the "changing water cycle", a programme cutting across three themes that will look at the impact of climate change on hydrological cycles.

"NERC has been interested in water for a long time, but it has not had anything like this before and certainly nothing that integrates across a number of science areas," said Louise Heathwaite, leader of the sustainable use of natural resources theme and co-director of the Centre for Sustainable Water Management at Lancaster University.

"This is a new opportunity for people to engage with more strategic science."

The programme, which is due to be launched in February, will fall under the umbrella of a larger government programme, Living with Environmental Change (LWEC).

Another of the programmes, promising new research on ocean acidification, will be tied to both NERC's earth-system science and biodiversity themes.

With a total of £7.5 million in funding, it will assess how rising carbon dioxide levels are increasing the acidity of our oceans, and examine the impact on marine resources. This is an area in which the research council has not invested heavily before.

Calls are expected in the spring, and NERC is in talks to establish whether this programme will also fall under the auspices of the LWEC programme.

Another of the new research programmes, on the behaviour and effects of nanomaterials in the environment, is being planned in collaboration with the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation, as well as other funding bodies.

NERC's contribution of £2 million could be boosted to £5 million by the other funders, it said.

This will cover "fundamental work" on the nanomaterials that exist in the environment, how they move around and the impact they may have, Dr Newton said.

The plan is to issue a call in January, and the programme will fall under the umbrella of a broader nanoscience programme operated by the research councils.

NERC's action plans, which also include other new initiatives, are an implementation of the research council's strategy, which runs from 2007 to 2012.

Dr Newton said that the plans would be updated annually, and while the first set focused on new initiatives, future plans would also look at improving existing programmes.

What was particularly innovative about the plans was that NERC had employed seven scientists from the research community as "theme leaders", Dr Newton said.

For those looking to access some of NERC's cash, an online "schedule of opportunities", including details of future calls, will be published shortly.

Dr Newton said that there was still some work to be done before calls for programme funding were issued. He noted that although the first set of funding was different for each theme, it was the intention that they would eventually be funded equally.

The theme action plans and the new programmes are part of NERC's managed mode funding and are "completely separate" from the annual pot of £70 million-£80 million for blue-skies research, under which researchers can propose anything they want within NERC's remit.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

www.nerc.ac.uk

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