UK and Chinese scientists join forces to advance understanding of the evolution of the biosphere

22 November 2016

NERC and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) are jointly supporting a new strategic research programme Biosphere Evolution, Transitions & Resilience (BETR).

This programme will focus on exploring palaeontological sites in China, which has a diverse range of well-preserved fossil localities that cover all of the main periods of biotic change in Earth's history.

Studying the fossil record can provide insights into how the biosphere responds to change, including if there are traits whose loss can lead to ecosystem collapse and whether there is a relationship between biodiversity and biosphere resilience. A better understanding of how ecosystems have responded to change in the past can therefore enable better predictions of how present day ecosystems will respond to future change.

The aim of the BETR programme is to support the interdisciplinary research needed to determine the rates and causes of change in the fossil record. This aim will be achieved by integrating geochemical, geochronological and palaeontological data into a common geospatial framework which are then combined with process-based models of evolutionary ecology coupled to biogeochemistry and climate.

Three four-year research projects have receiving funding as part of the Biosphere Evolution, Transitions & Resilience (BETR) programme and will start work in January 2017.

NERC has invested £4 million and NSFC has invested 9 million yuan towards the BETR UK/China programme and is one of several collaborations between NERC and NSFC. This programme is the first non-Newton UK/China collaboration and will strengthen the partnership with NSFC beyond the Newton framework. This programme and joint funding process has been facilitated by the Research Councils UK (RCUK) China office.

The three projects awarded funding are:

  • The evolution of vegetation and biodiversity change during the Paleogene and early Neogene
    UK principal investigator Professor Paul Valdes, University of Bristol.
    Chinese principal investigator Dr Su Tao, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

  • Ecosystem Resilience and recovery from the Permo-Triassic crisis
    UK principal investigator Professor Paul Wignall, University of Leeds.
    Chinese principal investigator Professor Tong Jinnan, China University of Geosciences Wuhan.

  • Perturbation of the Earth System at the Proterozoic-Phanerozoic transition and the resilience of the biosphere
    UK principal investigator Professor Graham Shields-Zhou, University College London.
    Chinese principal investigator Professor Zhu Maoyan, Nanjing Institute of Geology & Palaeontology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Further information

Mary Goodchild
NERC media office
01793 411939
07710 147485

Nicky Lewis
Science programmes officer


Li Wencong


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, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

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.