Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Doctoral focal awards in the environmental sciences 2024

Apply for funding to deliver a doctoral focal award to address priority or emerging training needs within the environmental sciences.

Applications must be centred within Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)’s remit but interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary doctoral focal awards are welcome.

Applications must identify the challenge of focus for the doctoral focal award and justify the specific need for doctoral training in this area.

NERC funding is available to support four doctoral focal awards each in receipt of 24 notional studentships across three annual intakes.

Who can apply

This funding opportunity is open to applicants based at organisations that are eligible for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) research grant funding. This includes:

  • higher education institutions (HEIs)
  • research council institutes (RCIs)
  • eligible independent research organisations (IROs) and Catapult centres
  • public sector research establishments (PSREs)

Check if you are eligible for research and innovation funding.

Organisations that are not eligible for UKRI research grant funding may act as collaborative partners. Information regarding the nature of this collaboration must be included within the application.

PSREs wishing to be involved in an application are required to choose whether they wish to do so either as a hosting partner or CASE partner. An organisation cannot perform both roles within one application.

Each doctoral focal award must include an accredited higher education PhD awarding body.

Hosting partners

These are organisations that:

  • are eligible for UKRI funding
  • will provide the principal base (host) for students during the tenure of the award

The application should identify one of the hosting partners as the administrative lead partner. The administrative lead does not have to be a higher education doctorate award-making body.

Identification of the administrative lead should not be interpreted as recognition of a dominant partner which will host the majority of studentships.

Collaborative partners

These are organisations that are one of the following:

  • not eligible for UKRI funding
  • eligible for UKRI funding but will not provide the principal base (host) for students during the award

Collaborative partners provide additional benefits to the students’ experience, such as:

  • real-world experience and understanding
  • training
  • equipment
  • facilities

Demand management

As this is the second time we have run a funding opportunity of this type, we expect it to be competitive. Therefore, we encourage you to think carefully about the challenge-areas you submit, ensuring they meet the full criteria for the funding opportunity. We expect approximately 10 applications to be invited to the full application stage.

Organisations eligible for NERC funding can only act as administrative lead for one application submitted to this funding opportunity.

If more than one application is received from an organisation wishing to act as administrative lead, then the first application received will be accepted for assessment. The remaining applications will be automatically office rejected.

Applicants who submitted to previous Centre for Doctoral Training funding opportunities and were unsuccessful can apply to this funding opportunity.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

We are committed to achieving equity of opportunity for all funding applicants. We encourage applications from a diverse range of researchers.

We support people to work in a way that suits their personal circumstances. This includes:

  • career breaks
  • support for people with caring responsibilities
  • flexible working
  • alternative working patterns

Find out more about equality, diversity and inclusion at UKRI and NERC’s diversity and inclusion action plan.

What we're looking for


This funding opportunity has been designed to meet the following objectives:

  • deliver world-class doctoral training and development including cohort experience
  • focus on supporting research capacity in specific strategic areas, addressing societal challenges through environmental science doctoral research and involving interdisciplinary approaches
  • address skills gaps identified across specific research areas within and beyond academia
  • provide opportunities for students, preparing them to follow a diversity of career paths within and beyond academia
  • advance current understanding, generate new knowledge, and develop the breadth of expertise for the future of the research and innovation workforce
  • support a diverse doctoral community, which includes addressing areas of underrepresentation (for example protected characteristics, types of professions, career stage and porosity within the research and innovation system)
  • enhance collaboration and knowledge exchange within and between academia and other sectors for the benefit of the students, collaborative partners, award holders and, if applicable, wider society


In May 2022, UKRI announced its transition to collective talent funding across talent initiatives. Following this, in November 2023 the UKRI Doctoral Investment Framework was launched. This frames doctoral support around two types of award – doctoral landscape awards and doctoral focal awards.

Doctoral focal awards:

  • provide a focus on the advancement of a specific theme or research challenge, or to build capacity in an area where there is a demonstrable skills gap
  • address the development of a theme, research challenge or skill that would not be addressed at scale through a landscape award
  • facilitate cohort-based and interdisciplinary training both within and beyond council boundaries (same thematic focus but open to a range of disciplines)
  • promote non-academic collaboration with a specific sector

We are seeking to invest in up to four doctoral focal awards through this funding opportunity. These challenge-led doctoral focal awards will produce the next generation of internationally recognised doctoral researchers with each supporting PhD studentships, creating a community aimed at addressing a specific research challenge and related skills gap.

Our doctoral focal awards will provide talented individuals in specialised, strategic, or challenge-led focus areas while contributing to the provision of underpinning talent for the environmental sciences.

There is funding for each doctoral focal award to receive 24 notional studentships over the course of three annual intakes.

Applications must identify the challenge of focus and justify the specific need for doctoral training in this area.

The doctoral focal award model is designed to support a translational approach by encouraging academic and non-academic partners to unite around common challenges.

It is expected that the doctoral focal awards will integrate end-user involvement in developing and delivering the training required. An expectation is that this funding will be used to leverage additional investment (either cash or in-kind support) from stakeholders where appropriate.

Applications must be centred within NERC’s remit but interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary doctoral focal awards extending more widely across the breadth of UKRI are welcome.

This funding opportunity replaces our Centre for Doctoral Training scheme.

Training remit

Training provided by the doctoral focal awards should be:

Training delivered by these doctoral focal awards may build on existing training infrastructure where applicable, and engagement with other relevant research council doctoral investments and their end-user networks is encouraged.

Applications must outline a coherent training programme through which students will undertake both individual research projects and receive cohort-level training, in cross-cutting skills relevant to the doctoral focal award’s challenge area.

Training requirements

Alignment with UKRI Core Offer

The UKRI Core Offer sets out the expectations for all UKRI studentships, including support and student experience, research skills and methods and professional and career development. This information has been used to define the assessment criteria for this funding opportunity, see section ‘How we will assess your application’ for further details. All applications must clearly state how the requirements outlined within the UKRI Core Offer will be delivered as part of their application.

Funding opportunity specific training requirements

In addition to the expectations set out within the UKRI Core Offer, the training programme must:

  • enable access for all students to placements, internships or other relevant work experience opportunities (this includes UKRI policy internships). This does not mean that all students must complete a placement, however placement opportunities must be made available to all students, and training programmes should be designed with flexibility to enable students to undertake these opportunities if they wish
  • support capacity building and development of digital and data skills in the environmental sciences
  • develop commercialisation and entrepreneurial skills across the student cohort
  • ensure strong end-user involvement with all levels of training

It is important to show how this will be implemented and managed by the doctoral focal award across hosting partner institutions.

Funding opportunity requirements

Capability to deliver

You must provide evidence within your application that you offer sufficient high quality research capacity to deliver training in the challenge area of your proposed doctoral focal award. You should also justify your choice of partnership which can include international collaborative partners as appropriate to deliver the objectives of the training programme.

Collaboration with end-users and non-HEI partners

Collaboration with a variety of non-higher education institution (HEI) partners is vital for:

  • delivery of excellent multidisciplinary training
  • framing research questions to ensure production of research outputs with real-world applications of direct relevance and use to the environmental science community as a whole

Applications must be for challenge-led doctoral focal awards and therefore collaboration with end-users and other non-HEI partners should form a significant part of the focal award’s training programme, at both the design and delivery stage.

Successful applications will demonstrate clearly how students will benefit from engagement with multiple types of organisations, on both an individual and cohort level, via a variety of mechanisms.

You must evidence a track record of collaborative working and describe a coherent strategy for engaging with multiple stakeholders.

An expectation of the doctoral focal award is that our funding will be used to leverage additional investment (either cash or in-kind support) from multiple stakeholders.

In addition, you should:

  • ensure that a number of studentships offered by the doctoral focal award are CASE or ‘collaborative’ studentships (see the ‘CASE studentships’ section)
  • embed collaboration with end-users through mechanisms in addition to CASE (for example, placements, training courses or site visits) for all doctoral students within their wider training programme

You must demonstrate clearly within your application how this will be achieved.

CASE studentships and collaborative studentships

CASE studentships are delivered in collaboration with non-academic partners and meet the following requirements:

  • over the lifetime of the award, a minimum of 25% of the total notional studentships within the focal award must be CASE studentships
  • the CASE partner or partners must host the student for between three and eighteen months during their PhD. This placement does not need to occur in one single continuous period
  • CASE partners must provide co-supervision

The CASE partner or partners are also encouraged to make a financial contribution to the project including:

  • any costs incurred by the student when visiting and working within their establishment
  • the costs of necessary materials
  • facilities not possessed by the research organisation that are integral to the CASE studentship

CASE partner eligibility:

  • organisations eligible for funding from any UKRI Council (excluding Innovate UK) cannot act as a CASE partner
  • international CASE partners are eligible provided they are a non-academic organisation. The training grant holder must evidence that the CASE criteria has been met and that the placement provides an opportunity for the student to gain skills that could not be provided by a UK-based partner. The student must be fully supported by the focal award partnership and CASE partner throughout the placement period

As an exception to the above, public sector research establishments (PSREs) are eligible to act as a CASE partner for NERC studentships. PSREs wishing to be involved in an application are required to choose whether they wish to do so either as a hosting partner or a CASE partner.

You must demonstrate within your application the mechanisms you will use to ensure the CASE conversion requirement is met. We will review the successful applicants’ CASE compliance throughout the lifetime of the grant via reporting processes and reserve the right to use the outcomes to adjust future studentship cohort allocations.

Further information about CASE studentships is available: NERC CASE studentships.

In addition to CASE studentships, any number of studentships may be ‘collaborative’ (i.e., no formal partnership requirements). Partners that do not meet the requirements for CASE are considered a collaborative (non-CASE) partner. These collaborative studentships are monitored through reporting process and will be formally recognised as a success metric as part of the ongoing monitoring of the awards.

Management and governance

The doctoral focal award must have strong leadership and management. It should have both a lead operational manager and steering committee or management board. The steering committee or management board should be comprised of all hosting doctoral focal award partners and must also have representation from relevant end-user organisations.

It will have overall responsibility for the effective governance of the doctoral focal award and its relationship with us and provide a strategic needs framework to aid the prioritisation and development of PhD projects.

The doctoral focal award must demonstrate that robust and transparent governance arrangements will be in place from the outset of the focal award, which may include the development of formal partnership agreements, communication plans and systems for monitoring the focal award’s overall progress and success.

You are strongly encouraged to incorporate doctoral focal award students into the management and running of activities within the focal award. Where appropriate, formal partnership agreements must be in place ahead of the start of the first student cohort.

The doctoral focal award must also commit adequate support for appropriate administrative resource, and applications must be explicit about how administrative structures will be managed and funded.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

Equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) is a core feature of this funding opportunity. In line with UKRI’s principles on EDI, we want to work with our partners to shape a dynamic, diverse, and inclusive system of research and innovation that is an integral part of society.

In particular, your doctoral focal programme should work to provide everyone involved with an opportunity to participate in, and benefit from, the award.

You must demonstrate how your EDI strategy will embed the core principles of EDI at all levels and across all aspects of the doctoral programme, including:

  • increasing PhD access, including recruitment
  • working practices, including individualised student support
  • wellbeing support, including mental health
  • monitoring and evaluation, including a baseline and plans for improvement

We would expect your EDI strategy to describe how your doctoral programme is accessible to a diverse range of people and needs and how you will be removing barriers to participation across your doctoral programme and associated processes. Your application should demonstrate how you will create and maintain a positive, inclusive, and supportive environment for all students and staff.

You should refer to equality, diversity and inclusion at UKRI and NERC’s diversity and inclusion action plan, with a focus on embedding and implementing UKRI good practice principles in recruitment and training at a doctoral level. As a mandatory requirement, the EDI strategies, activities and commitments stated by successful applicants will be regularly reviewed by their respective research council, including, but not limited to, information on characteristics of current and prospective student cohorts.

This data will be collected on at least a yearly basis, via annual reports and we will reserve the right to access this data if and when appropriate across the lifetime of the award. See the UKRI data collection policy for more information.

Legacy and impact

Focal awards are supported with the intention of developing a legacy of training excellence. You must demonstrate consideration of the legacy and impacts of the doctoral training programme beyond the lifetime of UKRI investment.

Reporting requirements and monitoring

The monitoring of progress towards the vision and objectives as well as evidencing of impact are important components of these programmes. This information will be used by us to review the success of our training investments. Information provided will also be used to provide assurance that the focal awards are being managed appropriately and are progressing in accordance with the original funding application.

This will be conducted in various ways, including:

  • mandatory annual reports
  • a mid-term review of progress
  • hosting a regular partnership visit by UKRI staff

Successful applicants will be expected to respond to other reporting requirements when requested.

We will describe the key information required from focal awards in annual reports. This will include diversity statistics for doctoral candidate recruitment, CASE studentships and other collaborative partner engagement, financial leveraging, training, and development activities offered, and examples of doctoral candidate achievements.

Partnerships are expected to describe their approach to monitoring and evaluation, outlining their success measures and baselines and a continuous improvement process built in within their applications.

We will oversee and engage with successful applicants to support the delivery of excellent doctoral training.

Flexible Fund

The doctoral focal training programme will include a Flexible Fund to be split across successful applicants.

The Flexible Fund can be used to support a range of activities, including support for skills development, network building, or addressing EDI challenges (see relevant EDI sections). Some examples of how these funds can be used is provided in the ‘Flexible Fund’ question section.

The Flexible Fund will be awarded on an annual basis as an additional funding stream, each doctoral focal award will receive £21,600 per cohort intake (the first three consecutive years of the award).

Funding available

We will fund eight notional studentships a year for three years, to each of the successful doctoral focal awards.

A notional studentship consists of sufficient funds to meet the annual UKRI minimum stipend and fee levels, plus additional research, placement and management costs for four years of doctoral study. Awards will be supplemented with London allowance where eligible.

Individual studentships can be between three and a half to four years in length. If full four-year studentships are planned, a placement of a minimum of three months should be included and accommodated for within this timeframe.

The indicative funding per notional studentship for each research council is provided:

  • stipend: £74,488
  • fees: £18,848
  • research training support grant: £11,000
  • programme management: £2,000
  • total: £106,336

The student stipend and fees are indicative estimates only, based on the 2023 to 2024 research council minima multiplied by four, and excluding London allowance (at the time of award, stipend and fees will be indexed to accommodate rises in the minimum stipend and fees levels over the lifetime of the award).

Additionally, each award will receive a Flexible Fund allocation. There will be £21,600 awarded per cohort intake for each doctoral focal award.

The programme management header above can be used as a contribution towards placements, conferences, and administrative costs. A contribution towards operational management costs has been included within the above indicative funding calculation in recognition of the need to manage the partnership.

We acknowledge that this does not reflect the full cost of programme administrative structures. In line with the requirements in the management section, adequate funds must therefore be committed by you from either flexibility within the training grant, leveraged support, or a combination of sources.

Successful applicants will have flexibility in how they use the funding awarded and we encourage flexibility and virement between headings, subject to the standard UKRI terms and conditions of training grants. Be aware that the minimum numbers of students will still need to be supported each year (the minimum being the number of notional studentships allocated by us).

Given the flexibility in use of funding, it will be possible for successful applicants to use the training grant to support more than the minimum number of students each year. For example, this could be achieved by having students undertake training over a variety of timeframes and by co-funding students from other sources.

Students must be funded at least 50% by a NERC training grant to be classed as a NERC student. We support co-funding to be used from non-research council sources to part-fund additional doctoral focal training programme students. The details of these students can be registered for reporting purposes.

Successful applicants may use funding to leverage additional investment (either as cash or in-kind support) from multiple stakeholders, however, there is no formal requirement from either research council for match-funded studentships or cash leverage for this funding opportunity.

Services and facilities

Funding for NERC services and facilities cannot be requested as part of a training grant application. Students wishing to use NERC services and facilities must fund the costs of doing so using research training support grant funds or gain access to facilities through other routes.

Anyone wishing to use a NERC service or facility must contact the facility to seek agreement that they can provide the service required.

Read about NERC’s facilities, ships, aircraft and stations.

Data management

It is our policy to increase the visibility and awareness of environment data and to improve their management as a resource.

The focal awards funded through this funding opportunity should therefore ensure that relevant NERC environmental data centres are aware of significant datasets generated, or to be compiled, under the award so that their long-term stewardship can be planned.

For details of data centres, see the NERC Environmental Data Service.

Responsible research

Through our funding processes, we seek to make a positive contribution to society and the environment. This is not just through research outputs and outcomes but through the way in which research is conducted and facilities managed.

All doctoral focal awards are to adopt responsible research practices as set out by UKRI: Responsible innovation – UKRI.

How to apply

A two-stage application process will be used:

Stage one: outline applications

You will need to answer the following questions at the outline application stage:

  • vision
  • capability to deliver

Those successful at the outline stage, will be invited to submit a full application.

Stage two: invited full applications

If you are invited to submit a full application, you will need to answer the full set of questions:

  • vision
  • capability to deliver
  • approach
  • student experience and EDI
  • partnerships and governance

While you do not have to provide any new or additional information within the ‘vision’ and ‘capability to deliver’ sections if you do not wish to do so, the panel will expect any feedback from the outline stage to have been addressed. You may also wish to demonstrate an evolution of the challenge area and any other changes as your application has developed.

We are running this funding opportunity on the new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Funding Service. You cannot apply on the Joint Electronic Submissions (Je-S) system.

The project lead is responsible for completing the application process on the Funding Service, but we expect all team members and project partners to contribute to the application.

Only the lead research organisation can submit an application to UKRI.

Watch our recording on how to apply for an opportunity in the Funding Service.

To apply:

Select ‘Start application’ near the beginning of this Funding finder page.

  1. Confirm you are the project lead.
  2. Sign in or create a Funding Service account. To create an account, select your organisation, verify your email address, and set a password. If your organisation is not listed, email
    Allow at least 10 working days for your organisation to be added to the Funding Service.
  3. Answer questions directly in the text boxes. You can save your answers and come back to complete them or work offline and return to copy and paste your answers. If we need you to upload a document, follow the upload instructions in the Funding Service. All questions and assessment criteria are listed in the ‘How to apply’ section on this Funding finder page.
  4. Allow enough time to check your application in ‘read-only’ view before sending to your research office.
  5. Send the completed application to your research office for checking. They will return it to you if it needs editing.
  6. Your research office will submit the completed and checked application to UKRI.

Where indicated, you can also demonstrate elements of your responses in visual form if relevant. You should:

  • use images sparingly and only to convey important information that cannot easily be put into words
  • insert each new image onto a new line
  • provide a descriptive legend for each image immediately underneath it (this counts towards your word limit)
  • ensure that files are smaller than 5MB and in JPEG, JPG, JPE, JFI, JIF, JFIF, PNG, GIF, BMP or WEBP format

Watch our research office webinars about the new Funding Service.

For more guidance on the Funding Service, see:


We must receive your outline application by 9 April 2024 at 4.00pm UK time.

If you are invited to submit a full application, we must receive this by 23 July 2024 at 4:00pm UK time.

You will not be able to apply after this time. Make sure you are aware of and follow any internal institutional deadlines.

Following the submission of your application to the funding opportunity, your application cannot be changed, and applications will not be returned for amendment. If your application does not follow the guidance, it may be rejected.

Personal data

NERC, as part of UKRI, will need to collect some personal information to manage your Funding Service account and the registration of your funding applications.

We will handle personal data in line with UK data protection legislation and manage it securely. For more information, including how to exercise your rights, read our privacy notice.

Publication of outcomes

NERC, as part of UKRI, will publish the outcomes of this funding opportunity on What NERC has funded.

If your application is successful, we will publish some personal information on the UKRI Gateway to Research.


Word limit: 550

In plain English, provide a summary we can use to identify the most suitable experts to assess your application.

We may make this summary publicly available on external-facing websites, so make it suitable for a variety of readers, for example:

  • opinion-formers
  • policymakers
  • the public
  • the wider research community

Clearly describe your proposed work in terms of:

  • context
  • aims and objectives

Core team

List the key members of your team and assign them roles from the following:

  • project lead (PL)
  • project co-lead (UK) (PcL)
  • grant manager

Only list one individual as project lead. They should be from the administrative lead organisation.

The project lead is responsible for setting up and completing the application process on the Funding Service.

You can list multiple project co-leads. Each hosting partner organisation should list a project co-lead on the application.

Find out more about UKRI’s core team roles in funding applications.

Application questions

The following questions will be assessed at the outline application stage:


Word limit: 1,500

What is the training grant going to achieve and why is it important for NERC to support it?

What the assessors are looking for in your response

Explain how your proposed training grant:

  • has a clear vision and objectives with tracking measures
  • addresses a justified and evidenced challenge area and associated skills gap
  • is grounded in a model of a highly skilled, doctoral graduate employable across a range of sectors and careers
  • outlines the organisations’ and partnerships’ research and innovation expertise in designated disciplines to provide training and address skills and capacity challenges
  • describes its anticipated outcomes and impact for society and the economy, outlines the strategies to achieve them

The vision should:

  • articulate the need for a doctoral focal award in this area within the research and innovation system
  • demonstrate relevance of the challenge or training need to NERC and UKRI strategic priorities
  • include well defined evidence and justification of the importance, impact, and novelty of NERC investment in doctoral level training, at this time, to the environmental sciences and the impact of NERC not investing in this area at this time
  • should demonstrate the organisations’ and partnerships’ investments in infrastructure and people in the listed areas of the assessment criteria
  • demonstrate research capability in the designated disciplinary area, as evidenced by the research and innovation strategy and proven track record of the lead organisation and partnership

You may demonstrate elements of your responses in visual form if relevant. Further details are provided in the Funding Service.

Capability to deliver

Word limit: 1,500

Who will lead and deliver the training grant?

What the assessors are looking for in your response

Provide evidence that you and your team collectively have:

  • relevant experience (appropriate to career stage) to lead the training grant
  • appropriate skills, including project management, leadership, stakeholder management, administrative skills, supervisory and research skills and pastoral capacity to support the number of studentships you are applying for
  • a well-evidenced track record of contributing to a positive research culture and the wider community
  • a well-evidenced track record of supporting the training and development of others, particularly previous involvement in delivering doctoral training successfully

You may demonstrate elements of your responses in visual form if relevant. Further details are provided in the Funding Service.

The word count for this section is 1,000 words to be used for R4RI modules for all team members, and, if necessary, a further 500 words for Additions for all team members.

Use the Résumé for Research and Innovation (R4RI) format to showcase the range of relevant skills you and your team have and how this will help to deliver the proposed work. You can include individuals’ specific achievements but only choose past contributions that best evidence their ability to deliver this work.

Complete this section using the R4RI module headings listed. Use each heading once and include a response for the whole team, see the UKRI guidance on R4RI. You should consider how to balance your answer, and emphasise where appropriate the key skills each team member brings:

  • contributions to the generation of new ideas, tools, methodologies, or knowledge
  • the development of others and maintenance of effective working relationships
  • contributions to the wider research and innovation community
  • contributions to broader research or innovation users and audiences and towards wider societal benefit

Provide any further details relevant to your application. This section is optional and can be up to 500 words. You should not use it to describe additional skills, experiences, or outputs of the lead applicant and of the team. You should use it to list any factors that provide context for the rest of your R4RI (for example, details of career breaks if you wish to disclose them).

Complete this as a narrative. Do not format it like a CV.

UKRI has introduced new role types for funding opportunities being run on the new Funding Service.

For full details, see Eligibility as an individual.

The following questions will be assessed at the full application stage, in addition to the ‘vision’ and ‘capability to deliver’ questions.


Word limit: 1,500

How will your doctoral training programme support your vision, and align with UKRI’s ambitions for its doctoral investments?

What the assessors are looking for in your response

Explain how your training programme will:

  • deliver the vision outlined for this doctoral training programme
  • embed a holistic approach to doctoral training and development that delivers high quality doctoral research, integrating in-depth subject knowledge, research and methodological skills, and wider skills development opportunities
  • prepare researchers to operate across interdisciplinary, collaborative and challenge-led environments
  • develop globally competitive researchers, able to use their skills to thrive across a range of sectors and careers
  • maintain links with doctoral graduates to track career pathways and to benefit current and future student cohorts

You should demonstrate how your student-centred training programme will:

  • catalyse student research, and provide doctoral training and development of excellent quality and importance within, or beyond, the discipline, field or area
  • deliver appropriate, tailored and innovative training, guidance and opportunities to enhance students’ wider research skills development. This should cover as a minimum:
    • in-depth subject area training
    • responsible research and innovation, ethics, reproducibility, research integrity and open research methodology
    • data management and analytical skills
    • communication and project management skills
    • interdisciplinary working
    • public engagement skills
    • routes to impact including through knowledge exchange, commercialisation and entrepreneurship
  • enable different routes for non-HEI partners to participate in the collaboration, co-creation and delivery of student training
  • foster interdisciplinary collaboration and expand networks both within and beyond the research organisation disciplines and sectors, both nationally and, if applicable, internationally
  • provide high-quality professional development options and careers advice to students throughout their training which recognises and promotes the diversity of careers
  • enable students to actively manage and direct their research and project training as well as their own professional and career development, working with and beyond their supervisory team, leading to improved awareness of the skills and experiences that would benefit their careers in a range of working environments across different sectors
  • maintain links with your doctoral graduates, utilising this network of alumni to track career pathways and to benefit current and future student cohorts

You may demonstrate elements of your responses in visual form if relevant. Further details are provided in the Funding Service.

Student experience and Equality, diversity and Inclusion (EDI)

Word limit: 1,500

How will you create and maintain an inclusive and supportive culture and environment for all those involved in the training grant?

What the assessors are looking for in your response

You should demonstrate how you will:

  • create and maintain a positive, inclusive, and supportive environment for all students and staff, addressing a diversity of needs
  • champion equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) across all aspects of the training grant, including recruitment, supervision and flexible student support
  • provide evidence for proposed EDI activities, including baseline and subsequent updates across the lifetime of the award

Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) will be a core feature of this award. You should describe how your overall EDI strategy will enable the wide participation of doctoral candidates and staff across a range of characteristics and backgrounds, and what support systems will be in place to accommodate a diversity of needs. You should demonstrate how you will embed evidence-based EDI principles and practices at all levels and in all aspects of research and training practice across the lifetime of the award, including:

  • increasing PhD access
    • how will the applicant ensure that the training opportunities attract a wide range of applicants from different social, cultural and educational backgrounds? How will applicants recognise underrepresented gaps and make this process be open and transparent?
  • working practices
    • discuss how you will support students and staff who require a flexible working pattern due to personal circumstances, such as parenting or caring responsibilities, health-related reasons and cultural expectations
  • supervision and supervisory teams
    • detail how you will deliver comprehensive inductions for new supervisors, as well as supporting continuous professional development for established supervisory teams, in line with an inclusive culture of excellent research supervision
    • how will you embed EDI values when considering staff across the wider supervisory team?
  • wellbeing support
    • propose a strategy to embed the support and provision of good physical and mental health, and wellbeing practices, for students and their supervisory teams
    • detail how you will promote a positive culture of listening to staff and student feedback, including the transparent management of complaints
  • monitoring and evaluation
    • successful applicants will be expected to provide diversity statistics and inform their future actions based on these analyses for each stage of the recruitment process for doctoral candidates in the annual monitoring
    • what progress indicators will you use to indicate and measure improvement in diversity and inclusion and why are these the most appropriate?
    • detail how you will provide evidence for your proposed EDI actions, including a baseline and subsequent updates throughout the lifetime of the grant

You may demonstrate elements of your responses in visual form if relevant. Further details are provided in the Funding Service.

Partnerships and governance

Word limit: 1,500

How will the training grant be governed, including collaboration between research organisations and non-academic partners?

What the assessors are looking for in your response

Provide evidence that research organisations and their non-academic partners collectively:

  • are committed to working together and contributing to the delivery of the training grant award
  • have a strategy for managing partnerships between and within organisations
  • have established a clear governance structure for the training grant award, with responsibilities outlined, and processes in place to ensure the training grant is well governed and all relevant partners as well as the student community are engaged
  • have established an approach to risk management, continuous improvement, monitoring and evaluation

The word count for this section is 1,500 words: 1,000 for the narrative about governance and 500 for a joint partnership letter if applicable. The joint partnership letter must include all hosting partners. You may also wish to include collaborative partners within the joint partnership letter if applicable.

Each applicant must:

  • set up a clear governance structure, including mechanisms to enable student engagement in the governance of the training grant
  • present how they will use the resources and bring value for money to deliver the vision
  • provide evidence that they have an appropriate research environment for students in terms of location, services, facilities, equipment, supervisory expertise, partnerships, student services and work culture, and ensure the partner organisations also offer such suitable environment for students who spend part of their studentship time there
  • follow a robust approach to monitoring and evaluation, with a set of defined success measures and baselines and a continuous improvement process built in
  • consider the final stages of the training grant award, and how to secure its legacy
  • show how the proposed partnerships are equitable and how they add value to the breadth and provision of high-quality doctoral training and development

We encourage applicants to co-create the training grant application with non-academic partners.

You may demonstrate elements of your responses in visual form if relevant. Further details are provided in the Funding Service.

Project partners

Provide details about any project partners’ contributions.

Add details about any project partners’ contributions. If there are no project partners, you can indicate this on the Funding Service.

A project partner is a collaborating organisation who will have an integral role in the proposed research. This may include direct (cash) or indirect (in-kind) contributions such as expertise, staff time or use of facilities.

Add the following project partner details:

  • organisation name and address (searchable via a drop-down list or enter the organisation’s details manually, as applicable)
  • project partner contact name and email address
  • type of contribution (direct or in-direct) and its monetary value

If a detail is entered incorrectly and you have saved the entry, remove the specific project partner record and re-add it with the correct information.

For audit purposes, UKRI requires formal collaboration agreements to be put in place if an award is made.

Flexible Fund

Word limit: 500

How will the first allocation of the Flexible Fund be used to support the doctoral focal award?

What the assessors are looking for in your response

You should explain how the first allocation of the Flexible Fund will be used to support the doctoral focal award.


The Flexible Fund must be used to benefit those associated with the doctoral focal award, which could refer to students, associated staff or both. It can also be used to increase access to potential future students of the programme, for example, widening participation activities. We would expect you to use the flexible support fund to complement and support the proposed training and EDI plan you have provided within your application.

The Flexible Fund can be rolled over to subsequent years, for example if there is a plan for an ongoing activity across multiple years of student intake. All Flexible Fund activities and their subsequent progress will need to be recorded in the mandatory annual report. It will also be the successful applicant’s responsibility to keep and maintain records of Flexible Fund activity expenditure.

Some specific examples are given below, but we encourage each applicant to think creatively about how they may use these funds:

  • widening participation activities, for example improving recruitment of underrepresented groups to the doctoral programme or developing networks for students with protected characteristics
  • supplementary* Funding for Undergraduate research experience placements (REPs). REPs can address demographic and diversity-related challenges as well as helping to address skills gaps in biological and environmental sciences
  • cohort training and development of core or vulnerable skills
  • EDI training for supervisors of funded students (for example, mental health first aider training)
  • supporting student entrepreneurship in the biological and environmental sciences
  • supplementary funds for student placements
  • supporting the integration of data science, AI and machine learning approaches for the biological and environmental sciences
  • cohort training in transferable skills (for example, leadership, project management)
  • cross-doctoral training programme training and network building, for example theme-specific symposia

*We will endeavour to continue to support REPs as a separate scheme, see NERC undergraduate research experience placements (REPS) for more details.


Word limit: 1,000

List the references you have used to support your application.

What the assessors are looking for in your response

Include all references in this section, not in the rest of the application questions.

You should not include any other information in this section.

We advise you not to include hyperlinks, as assessors are not obliged to access the information they lead to or consider it in their assessment of your application.

If linking to web resources, to maintain the information’s integrity, include persistent identifiers (such as digital object identifiers) where possible.

You must not include links to web resources to extend your application.

How we will assess your application

Assessment process

A two-stage assessment process will be used.

Stage one: outline applications

The outline stage will be used to identify which applications will be invited to submit to stage two. Approximately 10 outline applications will be invited to submit to stage two.

We will invite experts to form a panel to assess your application independently, against the specified, equally weighted outline application criteria for this funding opportunity:

  • vision
  • capability to deliver

Find details of assessment questions and criteria under the ‘Application questions’ heading in the ‘How to apply’ section.


We will give feedback with the outcome of your application at the outline application stage.

Stage two: invited full applications

The panel of experts will assess full applications, using the evidence provided to assess the quality of your application and rank it alongside other applications, after which the panel will make a funding recommendation.

We will make the final funding decision.

Full applications will be assessed against the following equally weighted criteria:

  • vision
  • capability to deliver
  • approach
  • student experience and EDI
  • partnerships and governance

Find details of assessment questions and criteria under the ‘Application questions’ heading in the ‘How to apply’ section.

Note: while the ‘Vision’ and ‘Capability to deliver’ criteria will initially be assessed at the outline application stage, these will also be reviewed by the assessment panel at the full stage. While you do not have to provide any new or additional information for these criteria if you do not wish to do so, the panel will expect any feedback from the outline stage to have been addressed.

You may also wish to demonstrate an evolution of the challenge area and any other changes as your application has developed.

The ‘Flexible Fund’ question will not be assessed by the panel but will be reviewed by us against the following criteria:

  • whether the proposed activities meet the objectives of the funding
  • whether the proposed mechanisms for delivery are appropriate

The award amount will be confirmed by us if successful.


The assessment process includes an applicant presentation and interview with the assessment panel. We will provide early notice of an invitation to attend, but you should note that the interview assessment panel meeting is currently planned for the week commencing 23 September 2024.

We will take account of the scope of the highly ranked applications when making the final funding decisions and may not fund multiple doctoral focal awards with overlapping focus areas for the proposed training. In circumstances where the top ranked applications overlap in terms of training remit, NERC may fund a lower ranked application instead.


We will give feedback with the outcome of your application at the full application stage.

Principles of assessment

We support the San Francisco declaration on research assessment and recognise the relationship between research assessment and research integrity.

Find out about the UKRI principles of assessment and decision making.

We reserve the right to modify the assessment process as needed.

Contact details

Get help with your application

If you have a question and the answers aren’t provided on this page

Important note: The Helpdesk is committed to helping users of the UKRI Funding Service as effectively and as quickly as possible. In order to manage cases at peak volume times, the Helpdesk will triage and prioritise those queries with an imminent opportunity deadline or a technical issue. Enquiries raised where information is available on the Funding Finder opportunity page and should be understood early in the application process (for example, regarding eligibility or content/remit of an opportunity) will not constitute a priority case and will be addressed as soon as possible.

Contact details

For help and advice on costings and writing your application, contact your research office in the first instance, allowing sufficient time for your organisation’s submission process.

For questions related to this specific funding opportunity, contact

Any queries regarding the system or the submission of applications through the Funding Service should be directed to the helpdesk.


Phone: 01793 547490

Our phone lines are open:

  • Monday to Thursday 8:30am to 5:00pm
  • Friday 8:30am to 4:30pm

To help us process queries quicker, we request that users highlight the council and opportunity name in the subject title of their email query, include the application reference number, and refrain from contacting more than one mailbox at a time.

You can also find information on submitting an application.

Sensitive information

If you or a core team member need to tell us something you wish to remain confidential, email:

Include in the subject line: Doctoral Focal award; sensitive information; your Funding Service application number.

Typical examples of confidential information include:

  • individual is unavailable until a certain date (for example due to parental leave)
  • declaration of interest
  • additional information about eligibility to apply that would not be appropriately shared in the ‘Capability to deliver’ section
  • conflict of interest for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to consider in reviewer or panel participant selection

For information about how UKRI handles personal data, read UKRI’s privacy notice.

Additional info

Our commitment to the principles of the Modern Slavery Act 2015

Modern slavery is a crime and a violation of fundamental human rights. It takes various forms which deprive a person of their liberty in order to exploit them for personal or commercial gain, such as:

  • slavery
  • servitude
  • human trafficking
  • forced and compulsory labour

We are committed to the principles of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and the abolition of modern slavery and human trafficking.


  • 13 February 2024
    Clarification regarding what questions will be assessed in the full application page added under How to apply section.

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