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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.