NERC 2015 Impact Awards

NERC's inaugural Impact Awards recognised and rewarded the contribution of NERC science to the UK's economy, society, wellbeing and international reputation.

The response to the awards was outstanding, with 82 applications of an exceptional standard submitted across four categories of impact: economic, social, early-career and international.

A shortlisting panel, made up of experts from academia, business and the third sector, whittled them down to two finalists in each category, with the winners selected by an esteemed panel of judges. The results were announced at a prize-giving ceremony in London on 27 January 2015, kicking off our 50th anniversary.

The winner in each category received a prize of £10,000 to further the impact of their research, with the runners-up receiving £5,000. A further £30,000 was awarded to overall winners Professor John Pyle, Dr Neil Harris and colleagues at the University of Cambridge and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, for their work to demonstrate the effect of man-made gases on the ozone layer.

Economic Impact

Recognising research that has achieved exceptional economic benefit.

  • Creating jobs and cleaner water (Winner)

    Dr Stephen Boult and his team at the University of Manchester developed new instruments for monitoring water and gas quality in the environment. Spin-out company Salamander licensed the products to Siemens and Ion Science, who between them have generated royalties equivalent to £7m in sales over the past five years. Since its launch, Salamander has employed 14 University of Manchester graduates, as well as generating further jobs and investment elsewhere both in the UK and internationally. Their water products, now recommended by the regulator, are used by all major UK water service providers, and their gas product is stimulating growth in the market for monitoring greenhouse gases from fossil fuel extraction, such as shale gas and coal-bed methane.

  • A blueprint for flood-risk management (Runner-up)

    A computer model developed by the University of Bristol's Professor Paul Bates and his team to predict flood risk has served as a blueprint for the flood-risk management industry worldwide. The technology has been cloned by numerous risk-management consultancies. This has not only saved commercial developers' time but also improved the predictive capability of models used in a multimillion-pound global industry that affects tens of millions of people annually. The model is now being used to make flood-hazard information available to the general public via Google Earth through a start-up company.

Societal Impact

Recognising research that has achieved exceptional social, cultural, public policy or service, health, environmental or quality of life benefits.

  • Bringing back the large blue butterfly (Winner)

    In 1979, after a century of failed conservation efforts and decline across Europe, the iconic large blue butterfly was declared extinct in the UK. But after 40 years of field and lab research by Professor Jeremy Thomas at the University of Oxford, and previously NERC's Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (now a part of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology), the globally-threatened species has been successfully reintroduced. Thomas's work has helped to identify the factors that determine the ability of this extreme specialist to survive under different and changing climates. This led to new, larger and more stable populations, an expansion of its range into cooler UK regions and new, more robust, races. The species' global conservation status has now been upgraded from 'vulnerable' to 'near threatened' and it is one of just three UK butterflies to meet the Convention of Biological Diversity's target to reverse species' declines by 2010.

  • Protecting homes and lives from coastal flooding (Runner-up)

    It's estimated that four million people and £150bn of assets are at risk from coastal flooding in the UK. Science conducted by Professor Kevin Horsburgh and the extreme sea levels team at the National Oceanography Centre in the areas of storm surge, wave and tsunami modelling, and the statistics of sea-level extremes, underpins many aspects of government policy on coastal defence and the mitigation of flood risk. In 1953 a North Sea storm surge breached defences and led to the loss of 326 lives in England and Scotland. The storms of last winter marked some of the most extreme weather of recent years: on 5 and 6 December 2013 sea levels along most of the North Sea coastline were higher than in 1953. Although minor flooding occurred, it is thanks to sustained improvements in forecasting systems, as well as investment in coastal defences, that there were no fatalities, and that there was a timely evacuation of some 10,000 properties.

Early-Career Impact

Recognising an early-career researcher who has achieved exceptional economic and/or societal impact within the UK or internationally.

  • Forecasting floods for a safer future (Winner)

    Since completing her PhD in 2003, Professor Hannah Cloke at the University of Reading has led a continuous programme of NERC-funded research aimed at furthering our understanding of flood risk. She has developed new techniques and methods to identify flood forecast uncertainty and allow for both the most likely and possible extreme scenarios to be identified. This helps policymakers to make informed decisions on flood-preparation issues, such as when to shut a flood-gate, or whether or not to evacuate. Working with UK industry, and flood-forecasting agencies in the UK, Europe and Far East, she has brought about changes in decision-making practice, better flood warnings and a reduction in flood risk around the world.

  • Keeping bumblebee parasites at bay (Runner-up)

    Bumblebees are imported on an industrial scale to help pollinate a number of important crops. PhD research by Dr Peter Graystock at the University of Leeds, now based at the University of Bristol, in partnership with The Bumblebee Conservation Trust found that commercially-reared bumblebees were infected with a number of different parasites upon arrival in the UK. These parasites can be passed on to native populations of bumblebee and even other bee species. In response to Graystock's findings, Natural England has tightened its regulations and now requires breeders and suppliers to carry out improved screening procedures, covering a greater number of parasites, before bumblebees can be imported into the UK. They are currently consulting on a proposed ban on imports of all non-native species. Meanwhile, Norway has banned bumblebee imports outright, until suppliers can prove their bees are no longer infected.

International Impact

Recognising research that has achieved exceptional economic and/or societal impact outside the UK.

  • Healing the ozone hole to save our skin (Winner and overall winner)

    Atmospheric research by Professor John Pyle, Dr Neil Harris and colleagues at the University of Cambridge and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science has played a leading role in demonstrating the effect of man-made gases on the ozone layer, and the consequences for human health. Their contributions played a key part in the strengthening of the Montreal Protocol, widely regarded as one of the most successful international agreements ever enacted. The protocol, along with other pieces of related legislation, has ensured the rapid phase-out of ozone depleting substances. As a result, the hole in the ozone now appears to be slowly closing, preventing a number of UV-related health problems worldwide, including skin cancer, sunburn and cataracts.

  • Giving advanced warning of weather extremes (Runner-up)

    Research by Professor Mark Saunders and his team at University College London has underpinned the development of seasonal forecasts and the real-time monitoring of tropical storms and European extreme weather. Over the last ten years these services have: generated nearly £1·5m in commercial product sales; provided free storm alerts or seasonal forecasts to more than 24,000 subscribers and re-insurance companies worldwide; and made an important contribution to saving lives in Bangladesh from cyclone Sidr and tropical storm Mahasen. More than 20 international organisations have also benefited from the services, including the Norwegian Hull Club, which uses them to help more than 9,600 vessels worldwide steer clear of dangerous storms.