Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Gap analyses of biological influence on ocean storage of carbon

Apply for funding to analyse existing global models and observations related to the role of marine life in ocean carbon storage.

You will help inform future predictions of ocean carbon storage.

You should identify:

  • significant knowledge gaps likely to be tractable by future fieldwork
  • fundamental limitations in how current models represent the carbon system.

You must be based at a UK research organisation eligible for NERC funding.

The full economic cost of your project can be up to £250,000. NERC will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

Projects must start by 3 July 2022 and will be funded for up to 12 months.

Who can apply

Normal individual eligibility applies, as described in section C of the NERC research grants and fellowships handbook.

NERC research and fellowship grants can be held at any of the following:

  • approved UK higher education institutions
  • approved research institutes
  • approved independent research organisations
  • public sector research establishments.

Find full details of approved:

Investigators can only be involved in one application.

NERC values equality, diversity and inclusion across all its funding programmes, and actively encourages proposals from diverse groups of researchers.

We actively encourage the inclusion of early career researchers through this opportunity.

What we're looking for

The ocean stores huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) that would otherwise be in the atmosphere.

Marine organisms play a critical role in this process, but emerging evidence indicates that climate models are not fully accounting for their impact.

This undermines carbon policies, such as national net zero targets.

This biological influence on future ocean storage of carbon (BIO-Carbon) research programme is carefully designed to produce new understanding of biological processes. It will provide robust predictions of future ocean carbon storage in a changing climate.

The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), which coordinates climate research internationally and is sponsored by UN organisations, has expressed its greatest priorities as three questions.

This programme will address two of those questions:

  • what biological and abiological processes drive and control ocean carbon storage?
  • can and will climate-carbon feedbacks amplify climate changes over the 21st century?

There are three interlinked programme challenges, which will address three aspects of biological influence:

Challenge one: how does marine life affect the potential for seawater to absorb CO2, and how will this change?

The ability of the ocean to absorb CO2 is influenced by its alkalinity. Reducing alkalinity pushes more of the dissolved carbon in seawater into the form of CO2.

This reduces the capacity of the ocean to take up further CO2 from the atmosphere.

Seawater alkalinity is influenced by a range of natural processes. The most important of these is the biological production of calcium carbonate (for example, by molluscs and fish), which removes alkalinity from seawater.

As the calcium carbonate sinks, it dissolves and the alkalinity is returned to the seawater.

Maintaining the vertical distribution of alkalinity fundamentally sets the capacity of our oceans to take up CO2. However, estimates of global ocean calcium carbonate production, vertical transport and dissolution vary by up to a factor of five.

This uncertainty is important because failure to reproduce alkalinity accurately in a climate model significantly impacts future projections of ocean CO2 uptake and storage.

Examples of significant knowledge gaps relating to key processes include:

  • what organisms are producing highly soluble carbonates in the surface ocean, and where?
  • which forms of calcium carbonate are dissolving where in the ocean?
  • what are the factors involved in the dissolution of different forms of carbonate, and what is their sensitivity to the anticipated impacts of climate change?

Challenge two: how will the rate at which marine life converts dissolved CO2 into organic carbon change?

Primary production by marine phytoplankton converts a similar amount of CO2 into organic material each year as do all land plants combined.

Climate models cannot constrain this crucial global flux to within a factor of three for the contemporary climate, which points to major gaps in understanding.

Furthermore, uncertainty about our estimates for how oceanic primary production will change under climate warming has increased, rather than lessened, this decade. Whether global primary production will increase or decrease is unknown.

Primary production is strongly influenced by ocean warming and the availability of light and nutrients. However, the contributions of changes in these drivers to trends across climate models are poorly constrained.

The importance of organism interactions and metabolism, and their associated demands for carbon and other resources, is neglected by climate models. This is despite emerging observational indications of their significance.

Examples of knowledge gaps relating to key processes, operating across different scales, include:

  • what controls the efficiency of primary production?
  • what are the contributions of nutrient recycling and the consumption of phytoplankton by zooplankton to this efficiency?
  • how do these processes vary across different ocean environments, and how might future change, such as warming and acidification, affect them?

Challenge three: how will climate change-induced shifts in respiration by the marine ecosystem affect the future ocean storage of carbon?

Organic carbon produced in the upper ocean cannot be returned to the atmosphere until it is converted back into CO2 by the respiration of marine organisms.

Deeper ocean respiration supports longer carbon storage as it takes longer to return to the ocean surface and make contact with the atmosphere.

We still have poor understanding of how respiration varies with depth, location or season.

We know it reflects the diversity of the organisms, from bacteria attached to sinking dead material to fish migrating daily between the surface and the ocean interior.

We also know that these organisms are responding to anthropogenic changes, such as changes in temperature that affect the metabolism of organisms.

In addition, existing models only reproduce a limited selection of relevant processes, with no consistency in that selection across models.

Examples of significant knowledge gaps relating to key processes include:

  • what is the relative influence of size, shape and composition of non-living organic material in determining the rate at which it is converted back to CO2?
  • what are the relative magnitudes of the CO2 generated by bacterial degradation of non-living organic matter and that respired directly by other organisms?
  • how might ongoing changes in the environment (for example, to oxygen or temperature) affect respiration?


In addressing challenges one, two and three, research will provide a fundamental understanding of key biological processes that are globally relevant.

By encapsulating this new knowledge in a robust modelling framework, it will examine the resulting feedback on future predictions for how global ocean carbon storage may change.

Additionally, it will provide new parameterisations of key processes for inclusion in the next generation of climate models, and ‘emergent constraints’ to identify clearly erroneous forecasts.

The use of emergent constraints has been successfully applied to other areas of climate science, such as a constraint on climate sensitivity provided by air temperature variability or cloud feedbacks. However, it is yet to be adopted widely in marine science.

Geographic focus

The BIO-Carbon programme aims to highlight the importance of international waters to discussions on carbon policy.

All BIO-Carbon projects are therefore required to focus research on processes that are globally relevant, in waters:

  • within the open ocean water column that regulates carbon storage
  • beyond the continental shelf break
  • where the seafloor is typically at a depth greater than 1,000m.

BIO-Carbon fieldwork projects, which will be funded through a future opportunity, will be focused in the North Atlantic.

This is where the programme’s resources can be most effectively mobilised, and is a region where the relevant processes can be studied.


The outcomes of this research programme will:

  • enhance our understanding of key biological processes that affect how carbon storage by the global ocean will change in the future
  • significantly improve global ocean carbon budget projections, to better inform policy development and decision making in support of net zero ambitions
  • provide new parameterisations of key processes and emergent constraints on global model behaviour for use in simulations feeding into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) seventh assessment report
  • implement new parameterisations and constraints in a suite of global models in order to provide a robust assessment to 2100 of the biologically associated changes in global ocean carbon storage, and their sensitivity to key processes identified by this programme. This assessment should be suitable for inclusion in IPCC’s seventh assessment report
  • provide a significant UK contribution to the UN Ocean Decade outcome for ‘a predicted ocean’ by improving our ability to model oceanic responses under anthropogenic influence
  • address two priorities of the WCRP’s grand challenge on carbon feedbacks in the climate system.


Apply for funding to analyse existing global models and observations, potentially informed by laboratory data. Identify major knowledge gaps and rank them by their impact on carbon storage.

Your research outputs are expected to inform the development of future fieldwork and modelling proposals, as part of further BIO-Carbon programme funding opportunities (see the ‘additional information’ section).

For example, you should identify significant knowledge gaps likely to be tractable by the fieldwork programme, and fundamental limitations in how current models represent the carbon system.

The outputs from your project must reflect a broad perspective. For example, you might take into account the range of model outputs from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Projects 6 (CMIP6) initiative.

You must include a statement about how your proposal will contribute towards the wider aims of the programme.

You should also have a strategy to gather input from a wide range of experts. You must provide a clear plan for how you will engage with the national and international community to achieve this.

No fieldwork or associated studentships will be funded.

Community workshop

A community workshop will be held as a hybrid event in early March 2023. You must provide evidence at this workshop to inform the geographic and seasonal focus of the programme’s North Atlantic cruise plan.

The workshop will be part of a cruise plan development process overseen by the programme champion.

This process will inform the BIO-Carbon Programme Advisory Group’s (PAG) recommendation to NERC on the cruise plan, which is part of a future fieldwork funding opportunity.

See the ‘delivery and coordination’ section for more information about the PAG.

Following the workshop, you should engage with applicants to help them develop their proposals for the fieldwork funding opportunity.

Please include funding in your budget to travel to the workshop. However, where possible you should hold project meetings virtually as a more sustainable and cost-efficient alternative to in-person meetings.

You will be required to submit a mid-term report to the PAG in January 2023.

You can request funding for up to 12 months. Your project must start no later than 3 July 2022.

The full economic cost of your project can be up to £250,000. NERC will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

We will fund one project.

Data management

For NERC-relevant data, you must adhere to the NERC data policy. You should produce an outline data management plan as part of your proposal.

NERC will pay the data centre directly on behalf of your programme for archival and curation services. However, you should ensure that you request sufficient resources to cover preparation of data for archiving by the research team.

Read the NERC data policy.

How to apply

Notification of intent

Applicants wishing to submit a proposal must register a notification of intent (NoI) for their plans by 15:00 on 23 March 2022. Please use the NoI Word template (Word, 14KB) provided.

Only those who have registered an NoI will be able to submit a proposal.

The NoIs will be used to inform NERC’s plans for the assessment panel.

Email your NoI to:


You must apply using the Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system.

When applying, select:

  • council: NERC
  • document type: standard
  • scheme: directed
  • call: BIO Carbon Gap Analysis APR22.

This funding opportunity will close at 16:00 on 28 April 2022. It will not be possible to apply after this time.

You should leave enough time for your proposal to pass through your organisation’s Je-S submission route before the closing date.

Proposals will be office rejected and not considered for funding if they:

Attachments submitted through the Je-S system must be completed in single-spaced typescript of minimum font size 11 (Arial or other sans serif typeface), with margins of at least 2cm.

Exceptionally, this does not apply to:

  • letters of support
  • quotes for services, facilities or equipment.

Arial Narrow, Calibri and Times New Roman are not allowable font types and any proposal which has used any of these font types within the submission will be rejected.

On submission, we convert all non-PDF documents to PDF. The use of non-standard fonts may result in errors of font conversion, which could affect the overall length of the document.

Additionally, where non-standard fonts are present (and even if the converted PDF document may look unaffected in the Je-S system), some information may be removed when it is imported into the research councils’ grants system.

We therefore recommend that where a document contains any non-standard fonts (for example, scientific notation or diagrams), the document should be converted to PDF before it is attached to the proposal.

References and footnotes should be in the same font type as the rest of the document, with a minimum font size of 11.

Headers and footers should not be used for references or information relating to the scientific case. Applicants referring to websites should note that referees may choose not to check hyperlinks.

Applicants should ensure that their proposal conforms to all eligibility and submission rules, or their proposal may be rejected without peer review.

More details on NERC’s submission rules can be found in the NERC research grant and fellowships handbook and the NERC guidance for applicants.

What to include

Proposals must include the following documents:

Case for support

The case for support should comprise:

  • details of your previous track record (up to two sides of A4)
  • a description of your proposed research (up to four sides of A4).

Outline data management plan (if applicable)

Write up to one side of A4.

Justification of resources

This should be a narrative description of why you require the resources requested.

It should include a justification for all items of equipment costing between £10,000 and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) equipment threshold of £138,000 (£115,000 excluding VAT).

Write up to one side of A4 in total, to cover all research organisations involved.


CVs are required for all named research staff. Write up to two sides of A4 for each CV.

Project partner letter of support

Each project partner should write no more than one side of A4.

Facility form

This should be used to apply for high performance computing (HPC) when use of ARCHER2 will exceed 500kCU in any one year for the whole project.

NERC services and facilities

Proposals should include formal requests and access costs for NERC services and facilities (for example, HPC or isotope analyses) where relevant.

No additional funding is available to cover NERC services and facilities. Therefore, all costs associated with the use of NERC services and facilities must be included within:

  • the funding limit of proposals
  • the other directly incurred costs of proposals.

Prior to submitting a proposal, applicants wishing to use a NERC service or facility must seek agreement from the facility that they can provide the service required.

Applicants wishing to use most NERC facilities will need to submit a mandatory ‘technical assessment’ with their proposal.

This is required for aircraft but not for NERC marine facilities or HPC. It should be a quote for the work that the facility will provide.

View a full list of the facilities requiring a technical assessment, and further information on NERC services and facilities in general.

How we will assess your application

Proposals will be evaluated by an assessment panel consisting of independent experts and relevant members of the NERC Peer Review College, where possible.

The panel review is anticipated to take place during the week commencing 23 May 2022.

The assessment criteria will be:

  • excellence
  • fit to scheme.

We will provide feedback to both successful and unsuccessful applicants.

To make the final funding decisions, NERC will consider the recommendations of the assessment panel, the overall funding opportunity requirements and the available budget.

Contact details

Ask about this funding opportunity


Get help with applying through Je-S


Telephone: 01793 444164

Opening times

Je-S helpdesk opening times

Additional info


The ocean takes up 20 to 30% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, holding 50 times the total amount of carbon present in the atmosphere.

However, the ocean’s ability to store carbon is sensitive to climate change. Inaccurately accounting for changes in oceanic carbon storage risks the efficacy of net zero ambitions and jeopardises major international efforts to reach global climate targets.

This was recently highlighted by the G7 Future of the Seas and Oceans initiative.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) has seen nations identify specific targets for their carbon emissions.

However, the ocean is already responding to anthropogenic change, and the efficacy of national targets depends on an accurate picture of how the global ocean will continue to store carbon.

The recently published global carbon budget has highlighted that there are large gaps in our understanding of how the ocean does this.

Trends in the flux of atmospheric carbon dioxide into the ocean differ by a factor of three between models and observations, leading to widening discrepancies in future projections.

An understanding of the fundamental processes responsible for ocean carbon storage is also essential for any meaningful discussion of the efficacy and risks of climate mitigation through artificially perturbing the ocean as part of carbon dioxide removal schemes.

Such discussions are restarting internationally due to the emerging need for negative emissions unless there is urgent action to avoid a temperature rise greater than 1.5°C.

Biological processes are responsible for maintaining a lower concentration of carbon in the ocean surface relative to deeper waters, facilitating ocean storage of atmospheric CO2.

However, the mechanisms by which they do so, and the sensitivity of these mechanisms to climate change, are poorly understood.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report stated that there is high confidence that feedbacks to climate will arise from anthropogenically triggered alterations to ocean biological processes.

However, there is low confidence in the magnitude of the feedbacks, or whether they have a positive or negative effect.

This knowledge gap is reflected in current climate models, with no consensus on which biological processes are included and no analysis of the consequences for predictions of this inconsistent representation.

There is therefore an urgent need for an integrated observational and modelling research programme that provides the capability to predict the future of global oceanic carbon storage with the accuracy required to guide human activity towards desired climate goals.

Such a programme would address the critical need for ‘a predicted ocean’, identified as a priority by the UN Ocean Decade to provide the knowledge, skills and tools to predict, and adapt to, future changes in the ocean and their impacts.


This research programme has two stages.

Stage one will provide new understanding of key processes. Stage two will integrate this new knowledge into models, to assess its global consequences.

The strategy for stage one is to encourage modelling, laboratory work and fieldwork to overlap, recognising that such an interdisciplinary approach is key to solving this complex issue.

Stage one is split between projects not requiring fieldwork and projects requiring fieldwork.

These projects are staggered so ideas for novel techniques or sampling strategies from non-fieldwork projects can percolate into planning for fieldwork projects.

Fieldwork projects will form part of a major fieldwork programme, with scope for significant use of NERC ship time and autonomous systems.

In addition to bringing novel modelling approaches to bear on this topic, stage two will make use of contrasting global models that are routinely used across the UK community.

This will allow the feedbacks arising from climate-triggered shifts in processes to be assessed.

Using a diverse range of models will provide a robust assessment of the impact of biologically affected changes in ocean carbon storage to 2100, and its uncertainty.

The UK has a range of models needed for this important step that very few other countries possess.

Delivery and coordination

A programme champion will be appointed to provide a coordination function and to ensure the effective delivery of the programme. They will be advised by the BIO-Carbon Programme Advisory Group (PAG).

The champion will lead on critical tasks as defined by NERC and the PAG. They will not be allowed to bid for research funding from the programme.

The PAG will be appointed by NERC and will include international members who have experience in developing and delivering similar programmes.

It will, among other things:

  • play a critical role in advising NERC on the programme’s cruise schedule and constraints for larger fieldwork projects
  • assess the progress of all funded projects every six months
  • maximise opportunities to secure stronger outcomes from the programme’s funded projects.

The programme will span the majority of the UN Ocean Decade (2021 to 2030).

Working closely with the champion, the PAG and funded researchers, NERC will ensure that by the end of the programme it has made a major UK contribution to the Ocean Decade.

The programme will seek endorsement as a UN Ocean Decade project. It will link to other relevant Ocean Decade programmes to benefit from wider activity in this area and ensure results have maximum impact.

Responsible research

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

All NERC grant holders are to adopt responsible research practices as set out in the NERC responsible business statement.

Responsible research is defined as reducing harm or enhancing benefit to the environment and society through effective management of research activities and facilities. Specifically, this covers:

  • the natural environment
  • the local community
  • equality, diversity and inclusion.

Grant holders should consider the responsible research context of their project, not the host institution as a whole, and take action to enhance their responsible research approach where practical and reasonable.

Supporting documents

Notification of intent template (Word, 14KB)

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