Global research hubs tackle world's environmental challenges

22 January 2019

UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) is pioneering an ambitious new approach to tackle some of the world's most pressing challenges through a £200 million investment across 12 global research hubs, announced today.

Montage of images: a boat on a river delta, water buffalo, a sea turtle, and earthquake damaged buildings

NERC is the lead council for four of these interdisciplinary research hubs, representing a significant investment in environmental science that will support international research collaborations addressing a range of global challenges. For example, the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF) Living Delta Hub aims to safeguard the future of river deltas through more resilient communities and sustainable development, whilst the GCRF One Ocean Hub will help to predict, harness and share environmental, socioeconomic and cultural benefits from ocean conservation and sustainable use.

NERC's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) will lead the UKRI GCRF South Asian Nitrogen Hub, aiming to understand the flow of nitrogen into the environment from farming and fuel, and improve nitrogen management in agriculture to reduce water and air pollution. Finally, the GCRF Urban Disaster Risk Transitions Hub will work with international agencies to bring disaster risk management to the centre of global urban policy.

Over the next five years, the interdisciplinary hubs will work across 85 countries with governments, international agencies, partners and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ground in developing countries and around the globe, to develop creative and sustainable solutions which help make the world, and the UK, safer, healthier and more prosperous.

The hubs focus on a wide range of global challenges, from improving human health and promoting gender equality and social justice, to fortifying ecological systems and biodiversity on land and sea, generating agricultural sustainability, and fostering greater resilience to natural disasters. Each hub aims to achieve tangible outcomes that will improve the lives and livelihoods of millions across the world.

The new hubs being announced in detail today are funded through the GCRF - which is a key component in delivering the UK Aid Strategy and puts UK-led research at the heart of efforts to tackle the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Professor Andrew Thompson, UKRI Champion for International, and Executive Chair of the Arts & Humanities Research Council, said:

The sheer scale and ambition of these hubs is what makes them so exciting. They enable us to deliver a coordinated global response with UK researchers working in partnership with researchers, governments, NGOs, community groups and international agencies across developing countries. Each hub has the potential to transform the quality of life for multitudes throughout the world and safeguard our planet for future generations.

The hubs for which NERC is the lead council are:

UKRI GCRF South Asian Nitrogen Hub

Humans have massively altered flows of nitrogen on our planet, leading to both benefits for food production and multiple threats to the environment. The result is a web of interlinked problems, as nitrogen losses from agriculture and fossil fuel combustion cause air and water pollution. This hub will develop a more coherent picture of the nitrogen cycle. It will quantify nitrogen flows and impacts and explore how to improve nitrogen management in agriculture and reduce the need for synthetic fertilisers by making better use of manure, urine and natural nitrogen fixation processes.

Lead organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
Geographical focus: South-Central Asia

For more information about the CEH Hub, please see the CEH press release - external link.

UKRI GCRF Urban Disaster Risk Hub

Rapid urbanisation presents a time-limited global opportunity to embed disaster risk management in urban development, especially when you consider 60% of the area expected to be urban by 2030 is yet to be built. This hub will work with international agencies to bring disaster risk management to the centre of global urban policy and practice, strengthening the voice and capacity of the urban poor. Bringing together leading researchers with inspiring community and government leaders, the hub will work at an unprecedented scale to deliver real impact through interdisciplinary research.

Lead organisation: University of Edinburgh
Geographical focus: South America, East Africa, Middle East and South-Central Asia

UKRI GCRF One Ocean Hub

We are entirely reliant upon the ocean, but over-exploitation, competing uses, pollution and climate change are pushing ocean ecosystems towards a tipping point. This hub will bridge current disconnects across law, science and policy to empower local communities, women and youth to co-develop research and solutions. The aim is to predict, harness and share equitably environmental, socioeconomic and cultural benefits from ocean conservation and sustainable use. The hub will also identify hidden trade-offs between more easily monetised fishing or mining activities and less-understood values of the ocean's deep cultural role, function in the carbon cycle, and potential in medical innovation.

Lead organisation: University of Strathclyde
Geographical focus: East Africa, West Africa, Southern Africa, Oceania and the Caribbean.

UKRI GCRF Living Deltas Hub

River deltas comprise just 1% of global landscapes yet support over half a billion people. Deltas are vital social-ecological systems and global food-baskets, but the terrain and the livelihoods of those who rely on them are under threat from human exploitation, environmental degradation and climate change. Focusing on three deltas in Asia, this hub will operate on a model of equitable partnership with the delta-dwellers and the research community working together to develop new knowledge and policies. The aim is to safeguard delta futures through more resilient communities and sustainable development.

Lead organisation: Newcastle University
Geographical focus: South and Southeast Asia

To read the project summaries of all 12 hubs, visit the UKRI website - external link.

Further information

For NERC communications or media enquiries, please contact:

Mary Goodchild
External Communications Manager
01793 411939
07710 147485

For further information about the GCRF hubs, please contact:

Tracey Jewitt
UKRI ODA Communications Lead
07749 436564

James Giles-Franklin
UKRI Media Manager
07808 878276


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 environmental issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

2. UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) is a new body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of its component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas.

Operating across the whole of the UK with a combined budget of more than £7 billion, UKRI brings together the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council, the Economic & Social Research Council, the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, Innovate UK, the Medical Research Council, NERC, Research England, and the Science & Technology Facilities Council.

3. The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is the UK's Centre of Excellence for integrated research in the land and freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with the atmosphere. CEH is part of NERC, employs more than 450 people at four major sites in England, Scotland and Wales, hosts over 150 PhD students, and has an overall budget of about £35 million. CEH tackles complex environmental challenges to deliver practicable solutions so that future generations can benefit from a rich and healthy environment.

4. The Global Challenges Research Fund supports cutting-edge research and innovation that 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 capability for research, innovation and knowledge exchange; and providing an agile response to emergencies where there is an urgent research or on-the-ground need.

It is a £1·5 billion fund which forms part of the UK government's official development assistance (ODA) commitment and is overseen by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and delivered through nine delivery partners including UK Research & Innovation, the UK Academies, the UK Space Agency and other funding bodies.