NERC celebrates impacts of UK scientists in awards shortlist

5 November 2018

Paving the way for a satellite to monitor climate change by weighing the Earth's forests. Shedding light on the scale of microplastics in our oceans. Finding solutions to the threats to biodiversity in forests across the globe. Inventing an algorithm to predict - and help avoid - turbulence on flights. And uncovering a new type of energy reserve for the UK.

Montage of the six shortlisted scientists

These are just some of the positive real-world impacts generated by UK environmental scientists on NERC's 2018 Impact Awards shortlist, announced today.

Shortlisted and judged by independent panels of esteemed academic, industry and government figures, these awards celebrate NERC-funded scientists, as individuals or teams, whose work has had a big impact on the economy or society in the UK or internationally.

This year's judges include former UK Environment Secretary Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, and BBC presenter and Professor of Public Engagement in Science Professor Alice Roberts. (A full list of the panels is available at the foot of this page.)

Judges will choose a winner from two finalists in three categories: Early-career impact, economic impact and societal impact. To further the impacts of their research, the winner of each category will receive £10,000 and the runner-up £5,000. The category winner judged to have had the biggest impact will be the Impact Awards overall winner, and will receive an additional £30,000 funding. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum on Monday 3 December 2018.

Dr Peter Costigan, environmental consultant and chair of the 2018 judging and shortlisting panels, said:

Headlines celebrating scientific breakthroughs may grab our attention, but the reality is it can take a long time for golden nuggets of research to have an impact in our everyday life. Delivering impact is about keeping sight of the bigger picture - understanding how the detailed work in the lab or analysing complex datasets can translate into real world benefits.

This is my second time acting as chair of the Impact Awards judging panel, and I still find reading impact case studies fascinating. This year's shortlist reminds me that NERC-funded research is dynamic, exciting and incredibly varied. And the impact can be just as exciting and varied, and sometimes comes in ways that were not obvious or expected at the outset.

Please find the full list of shortlisted research by category below, and watch out on NERC's digital channels for articles, videos and more showcasing the impacts of the finalists' important research as part of NERC's Impact Month throughout November.

The shortlisted entries for the Early Career Impact Award, recognising an early career researcher who has achieved demonstrable economic and/or societal impact, are:

Saving Brazil's Atlantic Forest on a shoestring

Dr Cristina Banks-Leite

Dr Cristina Banks-Leite of Imperial College London has devoted herself to saving the forests of her homeland in São Paulo, where one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, the Atlantic Forest, has suffered great losses due to deforestation for agriculture in recent years. Cristina's research identified the minimum forest cover required to maintain biodiversity (30%), a threshold that has now been employed as the official target for restoration in the Atlantic Forest by the Brazilian Government.

Her research showed this could be achieved at an expected cost of just 0·01% of Brazilian GDP. Cristina's work has provided the Brazilian government with evidence of the economic feasibility of a compensation programme for farmers to both enhance biodiversity and reduce poverty.

Read more about Dr Cristina Banks-Leite's research in our Planet Earth article Saving the forest on a shoestring.

Putting "no deforestation" into practice in the tropics

Dr Jennifer Lucey

Dr Jennifer Lucey of the University of Oxford has dedicated her career so far to reducing the devastating impact that commodities such as palm oil - an ingredient used in more than half of supermarket products in the UK - can have on biodiversity in the tropics, as rich ecosystems are deforested to make way for crops. Jen's research has informed action by industry, farmers and regulators by determining minimum forest patch size needed to be set aside on agricultural land in order to maintain biodiversity.

These set aside thresholds demonstrated by her research have been used to develop new industry standards which have been adopted by many of the largest oil palm growers and applied across millions of hectares of land, and continue to be influential for decision-making on sustainable palm oil production.

Read more about Dr Jennifer Lucey's research in our Planet Earth article Protecting biodiversity in palm oil.

The shortlisted entries for the Societal Impact Award, recognising research that has achieved demonstrable social, cultural, public policy or service, health, environmental or quality of life benefits, are:

Uncovering the impacts of microplastics in the ocean

Professor Tamara Galloway

Professor Tamara Galloway at Exeter University and a team of pioneering researchers including Professor Richard Thompson OBE at the University of Plymouth and Dr Pennie Lindeque at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, started investigating the impact that microplastics - tiny pieces of plastic from sources including visible plastic pollution and microfibers from clothing - could be having on marine life in 2004. They were the first to predict that microplastics could be widespread in the marine food chain and went on to prove this.

These discoveries have directly informed policy, such as the UK microbeads ban, and fed into the rising public consciousness of the impact of plastic pollution on our environment, including advising on the game-changing BBC series Blue Planet II. The researchers are now investigating how we can make the plastic economy more sustainable.

Read more about Professor Tamara Galloway's research in our Planet Earth article From "trivial issue" to primetime TV: A researcher's journey through plastic.

Making flights smoother and safer

Professor Paul Williams

Professor Paul Williams of the University of Reading has worked with US scientists to develop an algorithm to predict in-flight turbulence. Following breakthroughs in 2008 and 2012, their algorithm has been used by the US National Weather Service to create turbulence forecasts since 2015, improving the safety of air travel for up to 2·5 billion passenger journeys so far, and also helping to make flying greener by reducing CO2 emissions.

Turbulence is increasing, as global temperatures rise due to climate change, and Professor Williams has been working with aircraft engineers to make sure that the next generation of planes is fit for a warmer, bumpier airspace.

Read more about Professor Paul Williams's research in our Planet Earth article Smoother and safer flying.

The shortlisted entries for the Economic Impact Award, recognising research that has led to demonstrable economic benefit, are:

Opening up a new type of petroleum reservoir for the UK

Professor Bob Holdsworth

Professor Bob Holdsworth of the University of Durham was funded by NERC between 1998 and 2009, with a knowledge exchange fellowship funded until 2012. Like some of the UK's finest science, Bob's research was curiosity-driven. As a passionate geologist, Bob noticed an unexplained sediment in geological cores taken many years ago off the coast of Shetland, and his persistence to investigate led to the discovery of petroleum deposits stored in fractures in bedrock under the sea.

Subsequent NERC-funding facilitated Bob's work with industry to research technologies to extract these resources, as well as the creation of a spin-out company, opening-up the potential for a new reserves to be used as part of the UK energy mix.

Read more about Professor Bob Holdsworth's research in our Planet Earth article Uncovering energy hidden in the cracks.

Weighing the world's forests from space: The ESA BIOMASS mission

Professor Shaun Quegan

Professor Shaun Quegan of the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation and the University of Sheffield was instrumental in the selection of BIOMASS for the European Space Agency's seventh Earth Explorer satellite. This paved the way for Airbus UK to win the £192 million engineering contract to build the first ever satellite able to map the amount of biomass locked in the world's forests. Research grants from NERC facilitated both the environmental science that underpins how the satellite is able to work, as well as oversight of the research team involved in the bid for the contract.

Using radically new technology, the BIOMASS satellite will create 3D maps of the forests, measure their biomass and height, and make an accurate map of the terrain they are standing on. Crucially, it will allow us to understand how much carbon is held in forests, providing information vital to help us monitor climate change in the decades to come.

Read more about Professor Shaun Quegan's research in our Planet Earth article The Goldilocks effect: Weighing the world's forests.

Further information

Mary Goodchild
External Communications Manager
01793 411939
07710 147485


1. NERC is the UK's main funder of environmental science. 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 environmental issues. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

2. This is the second time NERC has run the Impact Awards. You can find out more about the 2015 Impact Award winners.

3. Impact Awards 2018 entry guidelines and assessment criteria are covered in the Impact Awards application guidelines (PDF, 169KB).

4. NERC Impact Awards Judging Panel

  • Dr Peter Costigan (Environmental Consultant) - Chair
  • Judith Batchelar (Director of Sainsbury's Brand, Sainsbury's)
  • Juliet Davenport OBE (Chief Executive, Good Energy Group)
  • The Rt Hon the Lord Deben (Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, which is a Statutory Committee advising government and Parliament)
  • Professor Michael Depledge CBE (Professor of Environment & Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School)
  • Dr Julia Fentem (R&D Vice President, Safety & Environmental, Unilever)
  • Dr Phil Heads (Associate Director, Futures, Strategy & Evidence, NERC)
  • Gordon McGregor (Managing Director, Spot Sensor Technologies Ltd and NERC Council member)
  • Professor Alice Roberts (Professor of Public Engagement in Science, University of Birmingham)

5. NERC Impact Awards Shortlisting Panel

  • Dr Peter Costigan (Environmental Consultant) - Chair
  • Dr Alexandra Burch (Head of Visitor Experience, Learning & Outreach, Natural History Museum)
  • Scott Cain (former Exec Director & Chief Business Officer, Future Cities Catapult)
  • Andy Griffiths (Sustainability Manager, Nestlé)
  • Paul Hayden OBE (Director, Resolve-Network and NERC Non-Executive Director)
  • Dr Phil Heads (Associate Director, Futures, Strategy & Evidence, NERC)
  • Professor David Hogg (Professor of Artificial Intelligence, University of Leeds)
  • Professor Iain Stewart (Director of the Sustainable Earth Institute, University of Plymouth)
  • Dr Lesley Thompson MBE (Director of Academic & Government Strategic Alliances, UK, Elsevier)
  • Dr David Viner (Global Practice Leader - Climate Resilience, Mott McDonald)
  • Dr Johnny Wentworth (Environment Adviser, Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology)
  • Professor Lesley Yellowlees (Professor of Organic Electrochemistry, University of Edinburgh)