Global issues from health to humanitarian crises to be tackled in ambitious research programme

21 July 2017

Leading experts from the UK and in developing countries across the world are joining forces to tackle some of the most serious global challenges in a new multi-disciplinary research programme launched today.

Earth from space

In one of the most ambitious international research programmes ever created, £225 million has been invested across 37 interdisciplinary projects to address challenges in fields such as health, humanitarian crises, conflict, the environment, the economy, domestic violence, society and technology.

The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Research Councils UK Collective Fund is supporting projects in the range of £2-8 million over four years.

It aims to build upon research knowledge in the UK, and strengthen capacity overseas, to help address challenges, informed by expressed need in the developing countries.

Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities & Science, said:

From healthcare to green energy, the successful projects receiving funding today highlight the strength of the UK's research base and our leadership in helping developing countries tackle some of the greatest global issues of our time. At a time when the pace of scientific discovery and innovation is quickening, we are placing science and research at the heart of our industrial strategy to build on our strengths and maintain our status as a science powerhouse.

Andrew Thompson, RCUK GCRF champion, said:

The 37 projects announced today build research capacity both here in the UK and in developing countries to address systemic development challenges, from African agriculture to sustainable cities, clean oceans and green energy, to improved healthcare, food security and gender equality.

Projects consist of UK and developing-country researchers, working together as equal partners and include:

  • addressing real-world problems such as the growing prevalence of diabetes and dementia in both the developing world and in western countries
  • utilising the potential of museums not only to reflect on past lives but also to promote social justice, strong institutions and fair societies
  • creating novel manufacturing processes for solar power and smart technologies for a second Green Revolution in crop yields.

For a full list of projects, see the GCRF growing research capability to meet the challenges faced by developing countries brochure (PDF) - external link.

Professor Thompson added:

The ambition is to lay the foundations for a sustained and targeted research effort to address the most intractable challenges faced by the world today: climate change, disease and epidemics, food insecurity, rapid urbanisation, and forced displacement and protracted conflict.

Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive Designate of UK Research & Innovation, said:

In the same way that facing these global challenges requires a multi-national response, finding the solutions to them requires researchers from many disciplines to work together. The Global Challenges Research Fund makes that possible, and means that the UK's world-leading researchers are able to get on with the job of working with each other and partners across the globe to make the world and society more sustainable.

Further information

Tamera Jones
NERC media office
01793 411561

Simon Wesson
RCUK Media Campaigns Officer
01793 444067


1. NERC-funded projects include:

  • Coastal competition and collaboration - Sustainable interactions with marine ecosystems for health, wellbeing, food & livelihoods - Professor Mel Austen, Plymouth Marine Laboratory

    Whether it is in fishing, aquaculture or tourism, in transport or renewable energy, coastal seas are delivering prosperity to human communities as never before. But as coastal resources deteriorate by the day, this cannot continue, and increasingly marine users are coming into conflict. Our coasts are gradually losing their capacity to provide services like storm mitigation, food security and climate regulation.

    For the marine natural and human worlds to flourish together in the long term, there is a general realisation that marine planning is needed - and this applies most acutely in East and South-East Asia where population pressures and conflicts over marine resources are increasing. Marine plans will try to reconcile competing demands, find ways of increasing prosperity, and always keep an eye on the long term.

    Blue Communities will work with scientists and local communities in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and China, focusing on these countries' UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, and marine protected areas in Malaysia. Supporting these countries to expand their abilities to do research, and involving everyone so that the different communities have their say, it is hoped that marine areas will be protected and used to sustainably nourish human activity for generations to come.

  • A drought in water research - Sustainable water & food security in drylands of sub-Saharan Africa - Professor Justin Sheffield, University of Southampton

    Relying on the rain to water crops is the reality for subsistence farmers across Africa - and these farmers are the mainstay of national economies. Rain is a fragile resource yet the availability of water underpins so much - including peace, health and prosperity.

    Research institutes in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi want to do more work to understand how to improve water and food security in their countries. But they often can't do this because of a lack of funding, research capacity and links to the international research community.

    Building Research Capacity for sustainable water & food security In drylands of sub-Saharan Africa (BRECcIA) aims to connect scientists in these countries by linking them not just with UK researchers but also with each other, so that they can compare approaches across the three very different nations. The programme will target the weaknesses in the research pipeline and try to strengthen these areas; set in motion water and food research projects; and provide a route to commercialisation should new water technologies emerge.

  • Improving African weather forecasting - Building science for weather information & forecasting techniques (SWIFT) - Professor Alan Blyth, National Centre for Atmospheric Science

    We take for granted the increasingly accurate weather forecasts that enable us to plan our lives. In the tropics, the science and technology of weather forecasting is far less developed, and all sorts of sectors suffer as a result, from farming to power generation and from fisheries to disaster preparedness.

    African SWIFT plans to boost African weather forecasting by training meteorologists and giving them what they need to give both short-range forecasts and more long-term seasonal ones.

    For this, it's essential to improve fundamental scientific research in the physics of tropical weather systems; enhance scientists' abilities to work with complex model and satellite data and explain it to others; and improve the communication and exploitation of forecasts. This includes building links with the sectors that need the forecasts - so the latter can let meteorologists know what they really need.

    The UK will also benefit because by the end of the project it will have better skills at making tropical weather forecasts too.

  • Marine robots to the rescue - Sustainable oceans, livelihoods & food security in the Western Indian Ocean (SOLSTICE) - Professor Michael John Roberts, National Oceanography Centre

    When squid stocks collapsed in the valuable Chokka fishery in South Africa in 2013, around 5,000 fishermen were left bereft of their livelihoods. Some four years later, it's still not clear why the fish vanished - yet millions of people who inhabit the East African coast, and depend on fish, may face a similar disaster.

    This sustainable oceans project aims to apply the high-tech world of UK marine science to the fishery problems of the Western Indian Ocean. The UK has expertise in marine robots, ocean modelling and the use of satellite data. Combined with skills from the region in marine economics, fisheries and regional policy, it's a formidable machine for understanding the Chokka collapse - and how to avoid it elsewhere.

    Expensive research vessels are not necessary if these cheaper technologies are made available. The results should help these nine coastal countries to implement a strategic action plan they have signed up to for managing their ocean resources.

    Following this regional plan is crucial - but it's hard to do this when scientific capacity is low, monitoring is inadequate and marine science and fishery policies don't interact. SOLSTICE hopes to change this, and thus safeguard the livelihoods of millions of coastal dwellers in East Africa.

  • Keeping moisture in the soil - Environmental physics, hydrology & statistics for conservation agriculture research - Professor Murray Lark, NERC British Geological Survey

    Conservation agriculture makes big promises: it claims to help farmers be more productive while reducing some challenges such as lack of water.

    It's an attractive prospect for poor and drought-plagued regions of Africa, and is based on three principles - don't till the soil, which breaks up its precious structure and increases evaporation of water, add organic matter to the soil to boost its quality, and rotate the crops in a way that dodges patterns of pest infestation.

    Yet the understanding of some aspects of this technique is poor. One big unanswered question is what happens to water in the soil under conservation agriculture? Does the soil store more water, helping crops to thrive when rains are delayed, and are there any knock-on effects on the vital groundwater below?

    That's what a network led by the British Geological Survey hopes to find out. Scientists at research centres in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi already collaborate to study other aspects of conservation agriculture. This project will develop research capacity to examine soil hydrology as well, and thus refine a technique that holds promise for 16 million food-insecure people.

2. 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).

3. Research Councils UK (RCUK) is the strategic partnership of the UK's seven research councils. Their collective ambition is to ensure the UK remains the best place in the world to do research, innovate and grow business. The research councils are central to delivering research and innovation for economic growth and societal impact. Together, they invest £3 billion in research each year, covering all disciplines and sectors, to meet tomorrow's challenges today. RCUK investments create new knowledge through: funding research excellence; responding to society's challenges; developing skills, leadership and infrastructure; and leading the UK's research direction. They drive innovation through: creating environments and brokering partnerships; co-delivering research and innovation with over 2,500 businesses, 1,000 of which are small and medium-sized enterprises; and providing intelligence for policymaking.

4. The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is a £1·5 billion fund that supports cutting-edge research which addresses the global issues faced by developing countries. It harnesses the expertise of the UK's world-leading researchers, focusing on: funding challenge-led disciplinary and interdisciplinary research; strengthening capacity for research, innovation and knowledge exchange; and providing an agile response to emergencies where there is an urgent research need. It forms part of UK government's Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment and is overseen by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and delivered through 17 delivery partners including the research councils, the UK academies, the UK Space Agency and funding bodies.

5. More details on each of the 37 grants can be found in the 'Growing research capability to meet the challenges faced by developing countries' brochure. For further details on exact elements on the projects, please contact the associated institution's press team.