NERC invests in a new generation of environmental scientists

Four new centres for doctoral training will boost UK expertise in flood management, wetland restoration, sustainable mineral resources and freshwater quality.

The new Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)-funded centres will teach the next generation of PhD students who will go on to build careers in research, business and public service.

Each centre will be supported with £2.6 million funding.

The centres for doctoral training (CDTs) will focus on the following themes.


Millions of homes and businesses are at risk of flooding in the UK from rivers, the sea or surface water, with billions more affected globally.

A new CDT led by the University of Southampton will improve understanding of:

  • drivers of flooding, for example, from rainfall, high soil moisture, enhanced river discharge, surface run off and storm charges
  • how climate change, changing population and development, and public perceptions affect flood risk

The new cohort of researchers will develop new approaches to map and forecast floods including using state-of-the art monitoring, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and developing new flood management strategies.

Freshwater early warning systems

Freshwaters in UK rivers and lakes are being impacted by chemical pollution, disease and biodiversity loss.

Research has also shown that these factors can impact human health and aquatic ecosystems.

A CDT led by the University of Bath will train doctoral students to improve real-time monitoring and management of freshwaters.

The aim is ultimately to reverse global environmental degradation and better protect both wildlife and human health.

Wetland wildscapes

A new CDT led by Heriot-Watt University will deliver the next generation of innovative researchers and conservationists needed to protect some of the Earth’s most vulnerable and valuable ecosystems.

Wetlands and fringing ecosystems are critical for combating the climate emergency and enhancing community resilience to extreme weather events such as storms and floods.

These ecosystems are among the most threatened globally.

A new generation of doctoral students will build our understanding of how environmental changes are impacting these crucial habitats.

Mineral resources

Expertise in the sustainable mineral resources sector is in high demand to support the growth of clean energy technologies and advanced manufacturing.

A new CDT led by the University of Leicester will support researchers across three cohorts.

PhD projects will be based around the themes of:

  • mineral deposit discovery
  • efficient resource recovery
  • environmental sustainability
  • strategy for supply chains and the circular economy

Fulfilling potential

Science, Research and Innovation Minister, Andrew Griffith, said:

Backing our brightest students to tackle issues as vital as flooding and protecting our water quality is an investment in protecting the landscape of the UK, while defending our planet and the resources we need to deliver us all healthier and more prosperous lives.

With more than £10m in funding over the coming years it will also help to skill-up students in high-value research, which will grow the UK economy and ensure we fulfil the potential of the talent spread throughout our country.

Equipping next generation researchers

Professor Peter Liss, Interim Executive Chair of NERC, said:

This investment by NERC will equip the next generation of environmental science researchers with the technical and professional skills to tackle some of the most significant challenges facing the UK and globally.

The new centres for doctoral training will focus on the key themes of flood management, freshwater quality, sustainable mineral resources and wetland conservation.

Rebalancing doctoral provision

This investment is the first time NERC has funded four new CDTs in one year and follows the announcement in November that NERC would rebalance its doctoral provision from 2024.

The move also supports the transition to collective talent funding across UK Research and Innovation with the aim of improving the flow of talent across disciplines and sectors in research and innovation.

NERC’s new CDTs will take their first cohort of students from October.

Further information

NERC will launch new funding opportunities for doctoral landscape awards in January 2024 and doctoral focal award in February 2024.

CDT project summaries

Doctoral Training for Resilient Flood Futures (FLOOD-CDT)

Led by Professor Ivan Haigh, University of Southampton

Hosting partners:

  • University of Southampton
  • University of Bristol
  • Loughborough University
  • Newcastle University
  • National Oceanography Centre
  • UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
  • British Geological Survey

FLOOD-CDT is a collaborative venture, made up of world-leading researchers and educators from four universities and three research centres, together with 40 partners across the UK.

It will develop understanding of:

  • flooding across all flood drivers (fluvial, pluvial, coastal, tsunamis, dam failures and groundwater)
  • how climate change, changing population, development and land use, and public perception affect flood risk
  • mapping flood dynamics and damage, and improving forecasting
  • making use of AI in modelling floods

Centre for Doctoral Training in Real-Time Digital Water-Based Systems for Environmental Health Protection (RED-ALERT CDT)

Led by Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern, University of Bath

Hosting partners:

  • University of Bath
  • Bangor University
  • Cardiff University
  • University of Exeter
  • UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

RED-ALERT will train and empower a new generation of leaders to transform how we manage aquatic environmental health via real-time digital water-based systems.

Training will focus on challenge-led multidisciplinary research and problem-solving skills.

Leveraging nationally leading research facilities, international networks and whole system ‘living labs’ to provide the in-depth knowledge and breadth of understanding, it will enable a step-change in managing environmental health.

Centre for Ecologically Relevant Multiple Stressor Effects on Wetland Wildscapes (ECO-WILD)

Led by Dr Frances Orton, Heriot-Watt University

Hosting partners:

  • Heriot-Watt University
  • Oxford University
  • University of York
  • University of the Highlands and Islands
  • UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

ECO-WILD is a unique partnership that brings together research expertise and innovation across various fields including:

  • environmental toxicology
  • ecology
  • multiple stressor theory and modelling
  • wetland conservation and restoration
  • socioeconomics
  • community engagement, management and governance

ECO-WILD involves some of the leading UK experts in these fields.

The ECO-WILD CDT will run over six years and comprise three cohorts, each of 13 to 14 students.

During their three year and eight-month PhD, ECOWILD students will work on a challenging research project aligned with one or more of five priority research areas.

Research areas will be identified through horizon scanning exercises and in collaboration with our stakeholders.

TARGET Mineral Resources: Training And Research Group for Energy Transition Mineral Resources

Led by Dr Daniel Smith, University of Leicester

Hosting partners:

  • University of Leicester
  • Cardiff University
  • University of Exeter
  • British Geological Survey
  • Natural History Museum
  • Imperial College London
  • Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, University of Glasgow
  • UCL
  • The University of Edinburgh
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of Southampton
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Brighton
  • University of Aberdeen

TARGET will train up to 36 multidisciplinary mineral resources researchers across three cohorts.

PhD projects will be based around the themes of:

  • mineral deposit discovery
  • efficient resource recovery
  • environmental sustainability
  • strategy for supply chains and the circular economy

Cohort training will deliver multidisciplinary skills and knowledge that cover the whole of the resources lifecycle.

It will prepare researchers for careers in a rapidly changing industry that is vital to the UK’s green energy transition.

Top image:  Credit: sanjeri, E+ via Getty Images

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