Implementing the new NERC strategy: Changes to NERC funding streams

3 April 2014

NERC's strategy 'The Business of the Environment', published in November 2013, sets out a high level of ambition for environmental science in the UK. Our effort to strengthen funding for strategic science, for post-graduate training and for innovation are key steps in the implementation of that ambition, as are the partnerships across the broad environmental science community that these funding modes seek to enable.

The strategy addresses three major societal challenges that are the target of NERC's directed science effort, and aims to reinvigorate discovery science so that it is truly at the frontiers and is curiosity-driven. In delivering the strategy, NERC will be inclusive of the environmental science community, encouraging bottom-up ideas for our strategic science effort and broad partnership between providers and users of science.

We have embarked on a major reform of the way we fund strategic and discovery science. Strategic research, NERC's new directed mode, replaces the old 'research programmes'. There will no longer be set themes and theme leaders developing a narrow range of possible programmes. Instead, NERC's strategic research mode will build on ideas for excellent science coming directly from the environmental science community.

These ideas will be developed into fully-fledged strategic research programmes by our new advisory group, the Strategic Programme Advisory Group (SPAG), or into highlight topics, which are intended to be more responsive strategic science projects rather than fully-fledged directed programmes. Highlight topics will be developed quickly, with around six months from idea to announcement of opportunity.

NERC has increased funding in the area of strategic research to enable greater community opportunity for shaping and delivering strategic science. This move towards more bottom-up driven strategic research means that we have been able to concentrate complementary effort on genuine blue-skies discovery science, enhancing opportunities for scientific serendipity and breakthrough to occur.

We will also be involving the community more in our thinking around future capital needs and introducing a more transparent commissioning process for national capability. Our ambition is to continue to deliver services and facilities and an advanced scientific infrastructure which provides the platforms necessary for strategic and discovery science in all the environmental science disciplines. We will invest in technologies and innovations that are most likely to future-proof our provision of science platforms, recognising that we are living in a flat cash world.

To help drive impact, Council has increased investment in translation, innovation and partnerships. Our approach is increasingly to empower researchers to develop the right partnerships, so we have increased our support for impact acceleration, using a number of different instruments, at the same time as actively seeking out strategic partnerships with science users, both from the world of business and of public service delivery.

Similarly, we have increased support for doctoral training so as to provide the next generation of environmental scientists. More effort is now being spent on leveraging partnerships with HEIs as well as with potential employers - which together help add to our increased investments in training. As with our science funding, our approach to funding of post-graduate training is strategic, enabling the community to help set the direction of effort directly through the provision of doctoral training partnerships and, through new mechanisms, to generate ideas for future focused Centres for Doctoral Training.