NERC backs research to protect China's soil and water resources

17 December 2015

NERC is backing new research into the environmental impact of changing land and water use in China.

Using an inter-disciplinary approach, UK and Chinese researchers will gauge how increasing agricultural production and urbanisation in China affects the health of soil and water in the face of environmental stresses such as erosion, pollution and extreme weather.

The research will help overcome challenges facing the country's 'ecosystem services' - the benefits we reap from the natural environment such as pollination, clean water, and fertile soil - which are vital to sustain future food production and drinking water.

Funded jointly by NERC and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), the Using Critical Zone Science to Understand Sustaining the Ecosystem Service of Soil & Water programme will fund five research projects from January 2016.

NERC has put £3 million into the programme to fund the UK researchers, using money from the Newton Fund - part of the UK government's official development assistance aiming to cultivate science and innovation partnerships that promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries. NSFC has put in 60m Chinese Yuan to fund the Chinese-based researchers.

The critical zone (CZ) is the portion of the Earth that supports life, and extends from the top of the tree canopy to the bottom of aquifers. The layer includes the air, organisms, soil and water, right down to the bedrock. Using CZ science, the research will combine expertise in atmospheric, biological, hydrological and geological sciences to look at soil and water within the context of the whole ecosystem. By researching how organisms, rock, air, water, and soil interact, scientists hope to better understand natural habitats as well as food availability and water quality.

The NERC chief executive, Professor Duncan Wingham, said:

This is one of the first major collaborative China-UK research programmes co-organised and co-funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and Research Councils UK. The programme's innovative approach reflects the increasing volume and scale of China-UK scientific cooperation.

Through this cooperation, we're aiming to understand and find ways to address the challenges facing China's ecosystem services. The size and complexity of these challenges means we need to look at these services in the context of the critical zone and use interdisciplinary science to understand and protect them.

NSFC Vice President, Professor Liu Congqiang, said:

Using Critical Zone Science to Understand Sustaining the Ecosystem Service of Soil & Water is the result of the successful collaboration between NSFC and NERC. The implementation of the research plan will provide answers to the major issues related to the sustained use of soil and water in the sustainable development of human beings. At the same time, it is hoped that the cooperation between the Chinese and UK research teams and this interdisciplinary and integrated research plan will lead to breakthroughs in research of the Surface Earth System Science.

The programme's key objectives are:

  • To understand the importance of spatial variation and scale (from field to landscape) on the ability of soils and water within the critical zone to perform their multiple functions.

  • To develop and improve models to predict future resilience of ecosystem services.

  • To seek to understand and improve the resilience of soils and water to human activity in the context of environmental stressors such as erosion, pollutants, extreme weather, changing agricultural practices and water availability.

The five three-year projects to start on 4 January 2016 are:

  • Using critical zone science to enhance soil fertility and improve ecosystem services for peri-urban agriculture in China; UK principal investigator (PI): Professor Steve Banwart, University of Sheffield; Chinese PI: Yong-guan Zhu, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

  • Red soil CZ: From natural to anthropogenic evolution of red soil and its impact on ecosystem function in the critical zone; UK PI: Professor Paul Hallett, University of Aberdeen; Chinese PI: Ganlin Zhang, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

  • SPECTRA: Soil processes and ecological services in the karst critical zone of southwest China; UK PI: Professor Timothy Quine, University of Exeter; Chinese PI: Dali Guo, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

  • The transmissive critical zone: Understanding the karst hydrology-biogeochemical interface for sustainable management; UK PI: Professor Susan Waldron, University of Glasgow; Chinese PI: Professor Xi Chen, Hohai University.

  • Modelling and managing critical zone relationships between soil, water and ecosystem processes across the Loess Plateau; UK PI: Dr Lianhai Wu, Rothamsted Research; Chinese PI: Professor Ming'an Shao, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Further information

Mary Goodchild
NERC media office
01793 411939
07710 147485


1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330 million of annual funding from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS).

2. The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) is widely respected as the most transparent research funder in China, it implements a rigorous and objective peer review system to support basic and frontier research, foster talented researchers and develop international cooperation. NSFC is RCUK's primary funding partner. RCUK's relationship with NSFC has developed significantly since the China office was set up. RCUK and NSFC signed a joint agreement in December 2013 to establish biennial strategic meetings to optimise resources and explore more effective mechanisms for bilateral cooperation. This is the first of its kind for both the research councils and the NSFC, and has been a vital step in solidifying a partnership that has funded over £108 million in joint programmes.

3. RCUK China was the first overseas team set up outside of Europe by the UK research councils. Since 2007, the team has built excellent relationships with all the major national funding agencies in China, pioneering the facilitation of UK-China research partnerships across areas of natural, physical and medical sciences, engineering, social science, arts and the humanities. To date, RCUK China has facilitated over £160 million in co-funded programmes supporting 78 UK-China research projects that have involved more than 60 universities and 50 industry partners in both countries. RCUK China currently has six members of staff and is co-located in the British Embassy in Beijing.

4. The Newton Fund is a £375 million fund (£75 million a year for five years) which, through science and innovation partnerships, aims to promote the economic development and welfare of poor people in developing countries. The fund is overseen by the Department for Businesses Innovation & Skills (BIS) and delivered through 15 delivery partners in collaboration with 15 partnering countries.