Highlight topic funding rounds

Sampling water

A highlight topic focuses strategic research on a defined subject area. The size and duration of projects will be specified for each highlight topic, up to the value of £4 million and four years in length.

This page outlines the science prioritised through the highlight topics mechanism.

NERC invites the environmental science community to submit new ideas for highlight topics

8 Feb 2021

NERC is seeking ideas for research challenges that should be priorities for strategic research investment through highlight topics.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Six rounds of highlight topics have been announced. The titles of the highlight topics in each round are:

Round six (call closed March 2020)

Biodegradable plastics as emerging environmental pollutants

This highlight topic aims to determine the potential environmental impact of biodegradable bioplastics to better understand the environmental effects of changing plastic production trends.

Understanding and predicting the cross-ecosystem impacts of insect decline on ecosystem services and natural capital

This highlight topic aims to better understand the causes, mechanisms, and consequences of insect decline through taking a multiple taxa and drivers approach to understand the cascading consequences for insect-dependent species, ecosystem functions and services.

Marine terminating Glaciers in the Earth System

This highlight topic aims to better understand the coupling of Greenland’s marine terminating outlet glaciers and the ocean in the context of global climate variability, and in so doing, improve projections of its future dynamic response and sea-level contributions.

Achieving net environmental gain and resilient ecosystems in the UK

This highlight topic aims to understand what mechanisms are at work in ecosystem restoration, how biodiversity, complexity, connectivity, feedbacks and resilience can be secured, with differing approaches to terrestrial system interventions.

Consequences of accelerating Arctic warming for European climate and extreme weather

This highlight topic aims to increase understanding of atmospheric and oceanic circulation changes in response to Arctic warming, and more broadly, the drivers of European climate and extreme weather on decadal to centennial timescales.

Polyisotopologues for constraining atmospheric budgets

This highlight topic aims to integrate nascent techniques in isotope geochemistry into atmospheric monitoring science to study the rapidly changing modern atmosphere.

Understanding global lithium resources and cycles to enable a low carbon future

This highlight topic aims to develop a holistic understanding of the global biogeochemical cycle for lithium.

Round five (call closes March 2019)

Marine noise pollution: understanding chronic effects

This work aims to characterise current levels of chronic ocean sound and increase our understanding of the effects on marine fauna of chronic exposure to increased marine noise.

Understanding the likelihood and impact of UK wildfires

This highlight topic will provide underpinning science and model development to quantify wildfire likelihood, impact and risk for the UK and similar highly-populated, intensively managed regions.

Impact of experimental deep-sea mining in the central pacific: a new interdisciplinary challenge for UK environmental science

This highlight topic aims to provide new insight into the actual impacts of deep-sea mining and provide a full assessment of ecosystem resilience.

Assessing large scale ecological responses to environmental change

This highlight topic seeks to quantify and predict ecological stability across ecosystem types and scales, using quantifiable and transferable indicators of the persistence and resilience of ecosystems, and to identify the ecological processes governing resilience across ecosystem types.

The impact of legacy waste in the coastal zone

This highlight topic aims to determine the impacts of solid waste in the coastal zone on coastal and marine environments and transitional waters, to enable the associated risks to be managed.

Advancing capabilities to predict UK and European weather conditions one season ahead

The aim of this highlight topic is to advance our fundamental understanding of the predictability of European climate on seasonal timescales and to ensure that these advances are translated into improved forecast capabilities.

The mineral systems approach to exploration and discovery of new sediment hosted copper (Co, V) deposits

This highlight topic aims to integrate methods and approaches used in both minerals and petroleum search spaces to develop a new minerals system approach for mineral exploration in sedimentary basins.

Round four (call closed March 2018)

Emerging risks from microplastics in the marine environment

This work aims to build on the UK's existing strong international standing in this field by supporting research that addresses a number of gaps in our understanding of marine microplastics and their potential impact on ecosystems.

What is the 4PM? New understanding of soil organic carbon persistence to meet C offset targets

This work aims to improve our fundamental knowledge of soil organic carbon (SOC) dynamics to help deliver carbon-offset targets through informing management practises that enable the sequestration of carbon in soil. This will help inform current policy gaps and specifically explore options to deliver the '4 pour mille' (4p1000) initiative that advocates increasing SOC by 0·4% per year to both reduce the rise in atmospheric CO2 emissions, and contribute to overall improved soil health.

Policy-relevant climate modelling to quantify and manage the risk of climate hazards

The aim of this work is to deliver a state-of-the-art assessment of climate change hazards and approaches to managing associated risks, contributing to the sixth Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, CMIP6.

Deep subsurface heat as a potential major future energy resource

This highlight topic aims to bring about a reappraisal of knowledge of deep geothermal energy in the UK.

Multiphase evolution of volcanic emissions

This work aims to improve characterisation of the multiphase processes experienced by volcanic emissions from source to sink to enable a significant step-change in our ability to predict eruption cloud evolution and deposition.

Preservation and potential of seafloor mineral resources

The aim of this highlight topic is to enhance our knowledge of the metallogeny of the oceans in order to verify the strategic value of and contribute to the global assessment of deep-sea mineral resources.

The impact of light pollution on biological processes

This work aims to provide an important evaluation of ecological and evolutionary consequences of the continuous and global increase in the extent of light pollution, specifically artificial light at night (ALAN).

Understanding urban soil properties, functions, and below-ground interconnections in delivery of ecosystem services

This work aims to improve knowledge of urban soils to understand better their properties and how they deliver the ecosystem services required of them, including support of green infrastructure projects. The objective is to inform on the quality and quantity of ecosystem services provided by soils across urban landscapes, enabling more effective management at a range of spatial and temporal scales relevant to contrasting urban environments.

Impacts of future ship traffic and emission regulations upon gas-phase chemistry, aerosol composition and radiative forcing in the North Atlantic and Arctic atmosphere

This work aims to increase our understanding of the impact of future ship traffic and emission regulations upon gas-phase chemistry, aerosol composition and radiative forcing in the North Atlantic and Arctic atmosphere.

Objective verification of national carbon budgets for assessing climate change mitigation measures

This work aims to improve evaluation of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the sub-national and sectoral level; and provide better understanding of the UK's GHG sources and sinks.

Round three (call closed September 2016)

New insights into space weather impact on UK national grounded infrastructure

This work aims to enhance our geophysical understanding of how the UK near-surface and subsurface responds to severe space weather, information that will ultimately lead to tools for assessing space weather impacts on grounded infrastructure, together with industry and other partners.

Genesis of magmatic-hosted ore deposits: A systems approach

This work aims to develop reliable proxies for distinguishing magmatic rocks associated with mineralization from those that are not, and robust indicators of proximal mineralization from magmatic rocks and/or younger sediments.

Modelling and forecasting the Earth’s radiation belts

This work aims to increase our understanding of the satellite environment by assessing the role of wave particle interactions in the acceleration and loss of radiation belt electrons.

Innovative application of big data techniques to natural hazard prediction and risk mitigation

The aim of this work is to transform our understanding of and ability to respond to environmental hazards by delivering more accurate predictions and challenging our understanding of processes through the merger of both structured observation data, and unstructured or qualitative data, with state-of-the-art computational models.

Round two (call closed October 2015)

Evolutionary biotic response to environmental change: limits to adaptation

The aim of this work is to improve our understanding and predictive capabilities of the dynamics of communities, and the limits of their adaptive capacities in response to environmental change through the integration of ecology and evolutionary genetics.

Coastal morphology: coastal sediment budgets and their role in coastal recovery

The aim of this highlight topic is to better understand dynamic coastal processes, both physical and biological, and their role in coastal recovery.

Closing the global methane budget

The objective of this highlight topic is to close the global methane budget through undertaking new observations and further analysis of existing data.

Reducing uncertainty in the integrity of potential carbon capture and storage sites

This highlight topic aims to improve knowledge of the integrity of the sedimentary overburden of potential CO2 storage reservoirs in the North Sea region.

Round one (call closed April 2015)

Understanding and predicting anomalous trends in surface temperature and implications for decadal to centennial climate behaviour

The aim of this work is to better understand the causes of periods where the rate of global mean surface temperature is increased or decreased at decadal time-scales compared with long term trends at centennial time-scales. The particular focus is to understand the slowdown in the rate of warming since the late 1990s. The work will take a multi-disciplinary approach with the aim of improving the ability to explain and predict anomalous periods in the overall warming trend.

Environmental pathways, impacts and fate of manufactured nanomaterials

The aim of this highlight topic is to increase the understanding of how manufactured nanomaterials (NMs) behave in the real world, including their transport, transformation, impact, and eventual fate within their environmental pathways. The outcomes of the research should help to inform the development of management strategies and policies that minimise the environmental and health risks of NMs without overly precautionary regulation.

Dynamics of freshwater ecosystems within an integrated landscape system

Freshwater ecosystems are losing biodiversity, integrity and function faster than any other ecosystem. Their sensitivity to change is due to their high connectivity to processes and pressures across a range of scales, including climate change, pollutants, regional atmospheric deposition, local inputs of sediment, and invasive species. The aim of this highlight topic is to improve our understanding of this connectivity by supporting the research needed to develop a coherent ecosystems-based understanding of freshwater systems at the landscape scale in the UK, and hence underpin the development of sustainable management strategies.

eDNA: a key new tool for 21st century ecology

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is free DNA molecules that are present outside of organisms, released from microbial cells, skin, mucous, saliva, sperm, secretions, eggs, faeces, urine, blood, root, leaves, fruit, pollen, and rotting bodies etc. eDNA can be sampled and analysed using genomic technologies, including high throughput sequencing, to monitor for the genetic presence of species. The aim of this call is to address the current knowledge gap in the application of eDNA approaches to move from species identification (targeted genome sequencing) to full community profiles (metagenetics, using phylogenetic or functional marker genes) and understanding functional biodiversity and the dynamics of ecosystem functioning (metagenomics). This challenge requires proof-of-concept investigations in exemplar natural systems with independent observation of ecosystem functions.


2015 onwards.

Can I apply for a grant?

Yes, the Announcement of Opportunity for the seventh round of highlight topics is open on the UKRI Funding Finder. The deadline for notifications of intent for this call is 18 February 2021, and the deadline for submission of full proposals is 25 March 2021.


NERC has allocated £93 million to the first six rounds of highlight topics. £16 million has been allocated to the seventh round of highlight topics.

Programme awards

Award details are shown in our online grants browser - Grants on the Web.

View details of funded applications - external link