Unprecedented opportunities in climate and environmental change research spanning the academic disciplines are up for grabs, according to the Natural Environment Research Council.
Nerc is not only leading the seven research councils' contribution to a flagship £1 billion programme to bring together policy and science in the field, it has also adopted a new approach to working with academics to develop its own priorities for funding in this area.
In total, Nerc estimates it will spend 28 per cent of its £1.2 billion budget over the next three years on climate science in total.
It will make a £237 million contribution, including money from the climate science pot, to the £1 billion Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) project, a research and policy partnership of the research councils, government agencies and departments that was launched at the end of last year.
Other research councils are contributing anywhere between £2 million, in the case of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, and £57 million, in the case of the Medical Research Council.
Although details of the LWEC programme are still being developed, it is known that it will include environmental research aimed at bringing large-scale climate models down to regional and local level; work on the links between natural resources and human wellbeing; and social science research looking at public attitudes, perceptions and changing behaviours.
"It is a big step to be developing a programme with about 15 partners," said Daniel Osborn, Nerc's strategic partnerships broker. "What is also quite new about the programme is that it is aiming to achieve a degree of integration between policy and science that we haven't necessarily always achieved in the past."
From a Nerc perspective, Dr Osborn said, the programme will provide an umbrella for many of the directed research programmes Nerc currently conducts on environmental change and human wellbeing. For example, the current programme Ecosystems Services and Poverty Alleviation will be part of LWEC, he said. It is yet to be decided whether Rapid-WATCH, a project that funds a detection system for climate changes in the Atlantic Ocean, will also become a part of the new programme.
But to help the council determine exactly what climate change research it should be funding - both in terms of LWEC and more broadly - the council is pioneering a new idea. Late last year, as part of its new five-year strategy covering 2007-12, Nerc appointed a set of "theme leaders" from the academic community to lead the development of "theme action plans" for each of seven research priority areas identified by the council. The council hopes Nerc researchers will feel they can have a dialogue with these new theme leaders to bring forward their ideas.
Rowan Sutton, a climate change researcher based at the UK National Centre for Atmospheric Science in the University of Reading's meteorology department, is the theme leader on the climate system. He is currently working with academics, government departments and industry to develop an action plan for Nerc on exactly which areas of climate change research it should be concentrating its efforts.
"My central role is in advising Nerc on its priorities ... but this also feeds into addressing the challenges of LWEC," Dr Sutton explained.
Working within a "very clear" overarching goal of bringing climate change research down to a scale that people actually need to make decisions and plan for its challenges, Dr Sutton identifies work in both water research and sea level rise as areas for Nerc future research that are likely to feature heavily in his draft action plan for the theme.
The plan has a five-year outlook and is due out for consultation later this month, with a view to being finalised around May.
"Often all the focus is on temperature change ... but one of the really big challenges for predicting climate change is associated with changes in water," Dr Sutton said, highlighting the problem of floods and droughts. "There are basic science challenges about how we can produce (this) information."
On sea level rise, he points to "rather large uncertainty" in current projections associated with the future of ice sheets.
"We have got to make some progress in reducing that uncertainty. There is a world of difference between a 30cm and a 130cm sea level rise by 2100," Dr Sutton said.
So as we learn more about climate change, is there still any room left for blue-skies research in the field? Most definitely, according to both Dr Osborn and Dr Sutton, although they stress it is unlikely that it will be through LWEC.
"There is more money (being put) into directed programmes, but not at the expense of responsive mode," Dr Sutton said. He noted that a recent overhaul of Nerc funding streams has allowed the blue-skies element to remain "entirely unchanged".
"There really is a heck of a lot we don't know."