The NERC has indicated that it will reward more collaborative and risk-taking environmental research in the future. Julia Hinde reports
The Natural Environment Research Council's first comprehensive science strategy, published last month, has attempted to set the scene for environmental science over the next five to ten years.
Alongside more support for basic research, environmental scientists can expect greater grant flexibility with some longer term, larger awards, more interdisciplinary and collaborative science with other natural and social scientists, and greater risk-taking and scientific innovation in the awarding of grants.
Michael Schultz, head of science strategy at NERC, explains that the new document, Looking Forward, contained hard choices rather than being a science wish list. "Looking Forward makes the case that the environment is now an important science that has grown up," he says. "Until a decade ago, it was seen as an optional extra. We argue now that it is not just an important science, but the most important when linked to the economy."
"What's more," he adds, "The United Kingdom is rather good at environmental science."
Asked about undirected, blue-sky research, Dr Schultz promises NERC will increase the amount of money ploughed into unsolicited project proposals over the next five years. "It's going to be more than safeguarded," he says.
As for the flexibility of grants, Dr Schultz says: "We are conscious that it can be difficult for people in universities to get profiles of funding, long-term grants over five years. But in some areas, such as ecology, we need to be talking this length of time to get the job done.
"There's also a feeling that to get large funding for equipment can be difficult, while some people who keep getting grants, who have a consistently good track record, are having to keep reapplying. We want to try and reduce the bureaucracy there.
"We want to look at how we can increase flexibility of existing schemes and perhaps introduce new ones so it's easier to get funding for good science."
He adds: "There's a feeling the system at the moment favours safe science. We need to look at how we can be more adventurous and innovative without being reckless. We are committed to doing this. But as yet we are not sure how we will go about doing it - whether we will need a new scheme or whether we can change the culture of referees.
"Certainly this year we will review our grant schemes. The message is greater flexibility. But, we want to avoid a plethora of new schemes. We will set up new grant schemes where necessary, but we also want to see if we can adapt existing schemes to make them more flexible."
Increasing interdisciplinary science is also recognised as a key priority for the future. According to Looking Forward "a new breed of scientists is needed". "Many of the most innovative scientific advances occur at interfaces between the disciplines," it says, promising to promote collaboration between the disciplines, and particularly to address interdisciplinary research skill shortages through targeted training initiatives. Better collaboration across research councils, particularly with medics and social scientists, and the creation of true interdisciplinary research teams are stressed.
As well as highlighting the need to introduce new programmes to address interdisciplinary skill shortages and to recruit physicists, applied mathematicians and molecular biologists to environmental sciences, Looking Forward spells out changes to NERC training packages with a move towards dynamism in masters courses.
"We have found we have become rather stagnant in the masters courses we support," Dr Schultz explains. "It is difficult for new courses to come in. We are already trying to change, trying to map more realistically our support to our needs for training." This, he says, includes introducing a five-yearly review of supported masters courses. "This is potentially a very powerful route for developing areas where there are skills shortages," he says.