Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Interdisciplinary environmental social science leadership team

Apply for funding to establish a team of social scientists and interdisciplinary experts. Your team will provide leadership for climate and environmental social science research.

To lead the team you must be based at a UK organisation eligible for UKRI funding.

This grant must:

  • champion, coordinate and facilitate collaboration within and beyond the social sciences
  • scope future ESRC and UKRI funding opportunities
  • engage with stakeholders including policy, business, and civil society
  • contribute to the evidence base needed for the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions.

We will award one grant to fund a team for five years.

The full economic cost of your proposal can be up to £6.25 million. ESRC will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

Update: You cannot include Defra or BEIS as project partners, or have them provide letters of support. For more details on how this might affect your proposal, see the proposal requirements in ‘What we’re looking for’.

Who can apply

We are seeking a team, including world leading experts, based at eligible institutions for ESRC funding. The team must be led by a principal investigator based at an eligible UK research organisation. That organisation will be responsible for submitting the grant application to UKRI.

Collectively, those involved in the successful proposal will demonstrate:

  • an outstanding track record of world-leading research and impacts within areas relevant to the pathways to achieve a UK net zero by 2050 and broader environmental, biodiversity and sustainability goals
  • in-depth knowledge of current social science and policy challenges related to achieving a UK net zero by 2050 and broader environmental, biodiversity and sustainability goals
  • a commitment to interdisciplinary research and an interdisciplinary collaborative approach that is held in high esteem by the research community
    well-developed networks with relevant stakeholders and the ability to identify and understand user needs
  • outstanding communication skills, suitable for engagement and building constructive relationships with a range of different audiences within the interdisciplinary academic community, business, government, and civil society
  • a clear vision for how funds will be utilised to deliver the objectives.

UK co-investigators across different sectors (business, third sector, government body organisations) and international academic co-investigators are welcome.

For more details on individual and institutional eligibility, read the ESRC research funding guide.

What we're looking for

Aims of the investment

ESRC is inviting proposals for this grant with the aim to support the transition to a sustainable and biodiverse environment and a net zero society through transformational leadership and coordination.

The aim is to increase visibility, access, and use of social science research and data, including within interdisciplinary collaborations, build capability and support the development of new research agendas. It will signpost, coordinate and work with new and existing investments, to bring together world-leading experts that have the skills, networks, and capabilities to develop an on-going dialogue with a broad range of stakeholders and have greatest impact across the thematic area of climate and environment.

It will identify skill gaps and create opportunities to increase capabilities and capacity within the social science community. It will work in partnership with the ESRC and UKRI in scoping and coordinating new research investments in the area through a broad set of expertise, consultation, and stakeholder engagement activities.

Opportunity objectives

The grant must deliver the following objectives:

  • champion, coordinate and facilitate collaboration within and beyond the social sciences in the area of climate and environment to contribute towards the urgent evidence base and policies needed to inform pathways to a UK net zero by 2050 and broader environmental, biodiversity and sustainability goals
  • increase understanding of the relevance and value of the social sciences within environmental research amongst other disciplines and stakeholder communities
    engage with stakeholders including policy at national and local scales, business, and civil society in order to understand user needs, co-produce activities and accelerate impact of research
  • contribute to scoping future transformative social science and interdisciplinary research within the area of climate and environment that draws on diverse stakeholder perspectives to ensure strategic research outcomes that make a difference
  • support capacity and capability building for interdisciplinary research and knowledge mobilisation
  • support access to and use of climate and environmental data generated within and beyond the social sciences that builds on and integrates with the existing data landscape, opening up opportunities for interdisciplinary research and achieving greater impact.

Proposal requirements

Applicants should propose their own operating delivery model to meet the objectives above. Proposals are required to:

  • establish a group of world-leading social science and interdisciplinary experts to deliver the aims of the opportunity
  • collaboratively co-produce and deliver a programme of activities to develop strong links with policy at national and local scales, business, and other stakeholders, such as secondments and fellowships to champion social science research, build capacity, develop innovative knowledge mobilisation activities and accelerate impact of research
  • support the scoping of future research programmes led by ESRC and UKRI for example through holding workshops and contributing expertise
  • champion existing and future environmental research programmes commissioned by the ESRC and UKRI in order to add value and achieve greater impact
  • identify and support opportunities for the development of skills, research capabilities and capacity within the social science research community, for example, coaching and mentoring, summer schools, placements, exchange visits, fellowships or co-leadership and innovative management practices
  • collaboratively develop and implement a strategy to support access to and use of appropriate climate and environmental data generated within and beyond the social sciences that builds on and integrates with the existing data landscape, opening up opportunities for interdisciplinary research
  • manage a flexible and competitively distributed funding programme to commission smaller projects that meet the aims of the investment including, for example, exploring emerging research and methodological approaches and new data opportunities, translating evidence, developing skills and accelerating impact
  • set out an approach to prioritising activities that will have the most impact
  • ensure delivery is integrated with existing UKRI strategic programmes, champions and co-ordinators, and work closely with UKRI staff throughout the programme.

Successful applicants will also be expected to deliver the following and proposals should outline how this will be achieved:

  • develop a brand and communications strategy
  • develop a stakeholder engagement and knowledge mobilisation strategy
  • develop a logic model and monitoring and evaluation framework for the investment with annual reporting of outcomes and impacts to ESRC
  • develop an equality, diversity, and inclusion plan
  • implement a strong career development programme for all its team members
  • establish an appropriate governance and strategic advisory model for the grant and the competitive distribution of the flexible fund (details should be provided in your management plan).

The long-term goals for the investment are to:

  • ensure the social sciences are a central and integrated part of UK research leadership in net zero and broader environmental, biodiversity and sustainability research
  • contribute towards the evidence base informing the UK net zero by 2050 and broader environmental, biodiversity and sustainability goals
  • increase awareness and engagement from actors across society to ensure more sustainable and equitable decision making.

This is not a research grant. Some research activity, such as research synthesis, translational projects, or pilot studies, may be proposed if they contribute to delivering the objectives of the opportunity.

Update 4 August: BEIS and Defra involvement

BEIS and Defra have agreed to sit on the commissioning panel for this initiative and to work with the successful leadership team when appointed, as far as they are able to do so.

BEIS and Defra have therefore agreed to not provide letters of support or be included as project partners on any proposals submitted for this funding opportunity.

Any letters of support from BEIS or Defra that are submitted with the proposal will be removed prior to the distribution for assessment.

Please refer to the recently published Defra group research and innovation interests and the BEIS areas of research interest.

For any queries about this update, please email

Team requirements

Proposals should be made up of a group of world-leading experts within areas relevant to the pathways to achieve a UK net zero by 2050 and broader environmental, biodiversity and sustainability goals.

The experts must include a social science-led team, and interdisciplinary expertise that brings in-depth understanding of relevant disciplines and policy challenges and evidence needs that underpin environmental transformation.

We expect that this group will be supported by a wider core team whose specialist expertise (academic or non-academic) will support the delivery of the funding opportunity objectives. These may include sector representatives, programme management expertise, a communications function, and knowledge mobilisation expertise. Previous ESRC investments that have similar wider objectives and that might be useful to consider, but not replicate, include:

Applicants will need to provide evidence within their proposal of their ability to provide an inclusive environment for researchers to thrive at all career stages, supporting interdisciplinary and intersectoral engagement.

Proposals should include an outline of the approach to a strong career development programme for all team members, shaped to suit the stage of the researchers’ career. Professional and career development must be encouraged and all members of the team should be given time to engage in relevant opportunities and be aware of the expectations set out in the:

The development of leadership and management skills should be included in these proposals to support both the effective delivery of the opportunity objectives, and its collaborative work. Consideration should also be given to supporting the wider leadership roles of the team in collaborating across disciplines, sectors and internationally, and in engaging more broadly with wider research communities, stakeholders and the public.

Applicants must explain how they will provide leadership to a diverse group of collaborators and how the proposed programme of activities and its outputs will be managed. We encourage the use of innovative leadership and management approaches to enable and facilitate leadership development and capacity building as well as the participation of early career researchers in the application as co-investigators. Consideration should be given to issues of succession planning for key roles or skill sets where relevant.

Funding programme requirements

The successful proposal will be required to work in partnership with ESRC, UKRI partners, existing and future investments to deliver the objectives. The grant is intended to complement existing and future investments by providing added value that enhances impact from the interdisciplinary research community.

Proposals must define and justify their objectives for a flexible funding programme and outline how it will be operationalised and governed. Funds for the flexible programme should be included in the total cost of the proposal and are capped at £200,000 per year of the grant and funded at 80% full economic cost (FEC).

Projects funded through this programme must undergo a competitive process, following the principles of peer review, and comply with FEC rules. ESRC should be consulted throughout the funds commissioning process to ensure best practice is followed. Projects funded are expected to engage with the wider programme of activities and report their progress and outcomes to the grant holder for reporting purposes.

Policy-focused fellowships would need to be developed in conjunction with ESRC to ensure alignment with both best practice and other relevant initiatives, and fellows would join ESRC’s wider policy fellow cohort to maximise connectivity and learning.

Proposals should include details of the advisory group, including both academic and non-academic membership, that will be appointed to oversee the development of the key activities and support the investment. This section should also address how the activities will be managed and detail project management resources and administrative support. Please explain how leadership will provide adequate operational capabilities and resources to meet the demands of the planned activities. These arrangements will need to be set out in the ‘Management Plan’ attachment in the proposal.

Further guidance is provided in the Je-S guidance for applicants (PDF, 304KB).

The proposal should outline how the legacy of proposed activity will be managed to engage beneficiaries and increase the likelihood of its impact in providing lasting value to participants, stakeholders and the wider social science community.

As with other investments of this nature and scale ESRC will be looking for evidence of long-term institutional commitment, both strategic and financial, to the proposed investment. We recognise that the grant already requires a research organisation (RO) contribution of 20% (as ESRC funds 80% of the full economic costs of the proposal) and would encourage ROs to offer commitments appropriate to their plans for the investment.

ESRC is committed to ensuring that host institution contributions are requested in a way that is sustainable for ROs and ensures a level playing field for assessment. ROs have a degree of flexibility in what forms of support they provide and how these are profiled over the lifetime of the investment. For example, commitments could come on stream later in the lifetime of the investment or ramp up over time. Some examples of institutional commitment may include (but are not limited to):

  • equipment
  • refurbishment of facilities to specifically support the activities of the investment
  • seminar and summer schools
  • administration of the investment
  • the appointment of new posts
  • support through the institution’s existing knowledge exchange, impact and/or international strategies.

Proposals must include an institutional letter of support from the Pro-Vice Chancellor for research (or equivalent role) from the lead organisation, confirming the RO’s (and any partner ROs’) commitment to the application.

ESRC COVID-19 Guidance for Applicants: Accounting for the unknown impacts of COVID-19

How to apply

Applications must be made through the Joint Electronic Submission system (Je-S).

To be able to do this your host organisation must be registered for Je-S, and you must hold a Je-S account. If you are unsure about this, you should contact your research organisation’s research office for further guidance.

For in-depth information about the application process, please see the Je-S guidance for applicants (PDF, 304KB).

When applying select:

  • council: ESRC
  • document type: Research
  • scheme: Research Grants – Strategic
  • call/type/mode: Climate and Environment Leadership Grant 2021

Mandatory attachments and page limits:

  • case for support, 12 A4 sides (this is the main body of your proposal, see Je-S
  • guidance attachment for detailed instructions)
  • justification of resources, two A4 sides
  • data management plan, three A4 slides (for grants planning to generate data)
  • CV, two A4 sides per named person
  • management plan, two A4 sides
  • institutional letter of support, one A4 side
  • environmental sustainability statement, one A4 side

Other optional attachments should be included where necessary, please see Je-S guidance attachment.

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

How we will assess your application

Applications will be assessed and shortlisted by an expert panel in November 2021 followed by interviews with shortlisted applicants in early December 2021.

Applicants will have the opportunity to respond to panel comments before the expert panel meeting in October 2021.

Applications that do not detail how they will deliver the objectives of the opportunity will be rejected.

Assessment criteria

Applications will be assessed against the following criteria:

  • Fit to the opportunity objectives, including approaches to:
      • championing, coordinating and facilitating collaboration within and beyond the social sciences
      • stakeholder engagement, co-production and knowledge mobilisation
      • scoping future research programmes
      • building capacity
      • building and integrating data
      • flexible funding programme
  • demonstrable experience delivering leadership and a vision
  • ability to work respectfully and collaboratively across disciplines and diverse stakeholder groups, including approaches to stakeholder engagement
  • appropriateness of management and governance arrangements, including plans for monitoring and evaluation, and the flexible funding programme
  • strong career development programme shaped to suit the stage of the researchers’ careers and providing increased opportunities for professional development of established investigators
  • strong institutional commitment and practical contributions to hosting and sustaining an ESRC investment of this scale
  • effectiveness of the proposed approach to work closely with the ESRC Office and wider UKRI colleagues value for money
  • approach to environmental sustainability.

UKRI recognises the relationship between research assessment and research integrity, and supports the San Francisco declaration on research assessment (DORA).

Contact details

Get help with Je-S

Any queries regarding the submission of proposals through Je-S should be directed to the Je-S helpdesk.

Telephone: 01793 444164

Ask a question about this opportunity


Additional info

The population and economic growth of the 20th century has come at a price that cannot be sustained.

The UN report that the world’s population is expected to increase by two billion people in the next 30 years, putting even more pressure on land use, water supply, and increasing the need for resource efficiencies and reductions in demand for currently carbon intensive services such as transport and housing.

World Population Prospects – publications (United Nations)

The UK government, setting a national target of carbon neutrality by 2050, and the interim target to cut emissions by 78% by 2035, has made clear its intention to demonstrate UK leadership in the new economy by placing the UK at the forefront of sustainable business and working in partnership globally.

UK enshrines new target in law to slash emissions by 78% by 2033 (GOV.UK)

The challenge to combat the climate and ecological crisis is an immense one and will require social science research leadership and coordination across disciplines to catalyse change and increase environmental quality and fair distribution of environmental, health, social, and economic impacts.


We held a webinar on 12 July 2021 outlining the aims and objectives of the opportunity. You can access the webinar slides under ‘Supporting documents’ and view the webinar recording via Zoom. Passcode: *uq5Y!tE

Supporting documents

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help improve our online products and services.