Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: NERC independent research fellowship 2021

Having been made aware of weblink inaccuracies and issues accessing the Independent Research Fellows funding opportunity announced in August NERC has revised the deadline to 10 November 2021. NERC aims to make funding opportunities accessible, fair and inclusive. The deadline revision is intended to ensure applicants are not unfairly disadvantaged.

Apply for funding to become an independent research fellow.

You must:

  • be an early career researcher
  • hold a PhD qualification or expect to submit your thesis before the fellowship interview.

You are not eligible to apply if you hold a tenured academic post or academic position at lecturer level.

We will fund fellowships at 80% full economic cost. You may apply for funding for facilities costs and cruise costs.

We will not fund studentships.

Your fellowship will last five years. You can choose to work full time or part time. Part-time fellowships will be pro rata.

Who can apply

This opportunity is open to applicants who hold a PhD qualification or expect to submit their PhD thesis before the fellowship interview takes place (April 2022). Individuals demonstrating an upward track to pursuing working independently and developing research leadership are encouraged to apply.

Applicants should not apply if they currently hold a tenured academic post or academic position at lecturer level (or equivalent position).

Prospective applicants unsure of their eligibility status should contact to confirm before they apply.

Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI)

NERC is committed to creating and sustaining a positive, fair and inclusive environment for our research community to ensure that all candidates feel welcomed, included and valued.

A focus on continuous improvement means that we are seeking to go beyond our statutory duties and become a beacon for diversity across the environmental science community. Achieving a high level of diversity within the NERC community provides an excellent foundation and environment for our research and innovation priorities to flourish.

NERC therefore encourages applications from all individuals who meet the eligibility criteria from all backgrounds regardless of:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race (which includes colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins)
  • religion or belief
  • sex or sexual orientation
  • neurodiversity
  • socioeconomic background
  • any other relevant factor.

We warmly welcome applications from individuals who may have undertaken non-standard or non-typical academic routes pre or post-PhD prior to application.

When considering your application, your career track record (including publication rate and volume), career breaks and part-time working will be taken into account specifically in the assessment process. More details can be found in the “How we will assess your application” section.

Part-time fellowships

Independent research fellowships (IRFs) may be held full or part-time and NERC welcomes proposals from candidates who wish to work on a part-time or flexible basis to combine their responsibilities with a career.

IRFs can be held on a part-time basis down to 0.5 full-time equivalent (FTE). In all cases, the length of the fellowship must be extended accordingly on a pro rata basis. For example, a five-year fellowship on a full-time basis would equate to a 10-year fellowship with the fellow working 0.5 FTE, but the value of the award would remain the same.

It is possible to change from part time to full time, or full time to part time at any point during the lifetime of the award.

Applicants should refer to the NERC research grant and fellowships handbook for details on funding for fellows on research grants.

Choice of institution

NERC recognises that mobility is not the only means to acquire the skills and experiences necessary to build a research career. NERC also recognises the need for having a fixed institution to provide unique facilities or opportunities, and other circumstances where moving would be unsuitable, such as domestic arrangements.

To demonstrate a commitment to the development of IRFs, NERC expects the head of department of the host institution to demonstrate support offered to the applicant.

Normal individual eligibility applies and is detailed at section C of the NERC research grant and fellowships handbook.

NERC research and fellowship grants for all schemes may be held at:

  • approved UK higher education institutions (HEIs)
  • approved research council institutes (RCIs)
  • independent research organisations (IROs)
  • public sector research establishments (PSREs).

Full details of approved research organisations can be found on the UKRI website.

Project partners

Fellowship proposals do not have a separate project partner section. Any significant collaborators (from outside the host research organisation) should be named and their role described in the ‘partnership details’ section of the form. A letter of support should be attached from each person named in that section.

Collaborators from the host research organisation submitting the proposal should not be named in this section and should not provide a letter of support. Internal collaborators can be mentioned in the section on ‘choice of host institution’.


Sub-contracts are eligible costs on proposals submitted to this opportunity, but should only be used for the procurement of goods and services. Sub-contracts are not permitted for research partners providing intellectual input into the project, where a research partner or project partner relationship is more appropriate.

What we're looking for

Through an Independent Research Fellowship (IRF), NERC will invest in researchers seeking to conduct their own environmental research within an eligible host organisation. Strong applicants will demonstrate convincing evidence of working towards this goal and a high potential to become independent research leaders in the future.

Applicants will demonstrate that, if awarded an IRF, they will be working independently of senior colleagues with whom they might have previously collaborated or for whom they might be working currently in a supporting role. Reviewers and panel members must be convinced that the applicant has devised their own research questions.

Applicants must clearly demonstrate evidence of the following criteria:

  • suitability of the applicant:
    • excellence of their research achievements during their career to date
    • potential to lead and advance their research discipline
    • capability to work independently
  • research excellence
    • research proposal displays high levels of quality, timeliness, feasibility, novelty and vision
  • equality, diversity and inclusion is embedded throughout the proposal
  • level of support provided by the chosen host institution.

Applicants should refer to the IRF competency framework in the ‘how we will assess your application’ section for examples of how to demonstrate meeting these criteria.

NERC supports fellows undertaking research across the breadth of the NERC remit within environmental sciences, including freshwater, earth, atmospheric, marine and terrestrial sciences, earth observation and polar science.

Proposals need to be at least 50% within NERC remit. However, proposals to work at the environmental science, socio-economic and engineering interfaces are acceptable and encouraged.

NERC is also particularly keen to attract scientists in areas of applied mathematics, physics or strongly quantitative disciplines wishing to develop a career in environmental science.

We work with other research councils at the boundaries of our remit, to ensure that there are no gaps in funding. We also ensure that there is equality of opportunity for proposals at the interfaces of traditional research disciplines, as well as those proposals that fall well within research council remits.

Data management

The NERC data policy must be adhered to and a NERC outline data management plan produced as part of proposal development. NERC will pay the data centre directly on behalf of the programme for archival and curation services. Applicants should ensure they request sufficient resource to cover preparation of data for archiving by the research team.

How to apply

Full proposals must be submitted using the research councils’ Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system.

Applicants should select:

  • proposal type: Standard Proposal
  • scheme: Research Fellowship
  • call: Independent Research Fellowships (IRFOCT21).

The opportunity will close on Je-S at 16:00 on 10 November 2021 and it will not be possible to submit to the opportunity after this time.

Applicants should leave enough time for their proposal to pass through their organisation’s Je-S submission route before this date. Any proposal that is incomplete, or does not meet NERC’s eligibility criteria or follow NERC’s submission rules (see NERC research grant and fellowships handbook), will be rejected and will not be considered.

All attachments, with the exception of letters of support and services, facilities and equipment quotes, submitted through the Je-S system must be completed in single-spaced typescript of minimum font size 11 point (Arial or other sans serif typeface of equivalent size to Arial 11), with margins of at least 2cm.

Please note that Arial narrow, Calibri and Times New Roman are not allowable font types and any proposal which has used any of these font types within their submission will be rejected.

References and footnotes should also be at least 11 point font and should be in the same font type as the rest of the document. 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 use them.

Applicants should ensure that their proposal conforms to all eligibility and submission rules, otherwise 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 in the submission rules on the NERC website.

Proposals for this opportunity should be submitted in the fellowship grant format following the requirements outlined in section F of the NERC research grant and fellowships handbook.

Please note that on submission to council all non-PDF documents are converted to PDF, the use of non-standard fonts may result in errors or 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, when it is imported into the research councils’ grants system some information may be removed. We therefore recommend that where a document contains any non-standard fonts (scientific notation, diagrams), the document should be converted to PDF prior to attaching it to the proposal.

NERC facilities

Principal investigators wishing to use NERC services and facilities need to contact the relevant facility a minimum of two months prior to submission of the grant to discuss the proposed work and receive confirmation that they can provide the services required within the timeframe of the grant.

The facility will then provide a technical assessment that includes the calculated cost of providing the service.

NERC services and facilities must be costed within the limits of the proposal. The technical assessment must be submitted as part of the Je-S form, as detailed in the NERC research grant and fellowships handbook (paragraph 236).

The full list of NERC facilities that require a technical assessment can be found on the NERC website. This excludes the below as these services have their own policies for access and costing:

Applicants wishing to use NERC’s marine facilities must complete an online SME or autonomous deployment (ADF) application form on the Marine Facilities Planning webpage. The SME or ADF number should be included on the Je-S grant proposal form under services and facilities.

Completed SME or ADF forms must be submitted by 14 September 2021 and approved by NERC marine planning by the time the proposal (Je-S form) is submitted. Failure to do so may result in the request not being considered for inclusion in the NERC Marine Facilities Programme.

Applicants intending to apply for NERC’s marine facilities should also contact to discuss shiptime and equipment needs as soon as possible.

British Antarctic Survey Antarctic logistics support

Applicants requiring NERC British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Antarctic logistics support must complete a pre-award operational planning support questionnaire (OSPQ). This is an online form.

Applicants must email the Antarctic Access Office (AAO) at BAS ( stating their name, institution and proposal title. The AAO will set up a new, numbered pre-award OSPQ and send the link to the applicant along with instructions for completion.

The deadline for pre-award OSPQs to be submitted is normally three months before the final proposal deadline. If the opportunity is shorter and this is not possible, an alternative OSPQ deadline will be set and circulated through the NERC list server in the coming days.

The pre-award OSPQ should be submitted to the Antarctic Access Office and included as an attachment at the full application stage. Any funding applications that request Antarctic logistics support without having received prior logistic approval will not be accepted.

How we will assess your application

Proposals will be internationally peer-reviewed by at least three reviewers, one of which can be an applicant-nominated reviewer.

In assessing fellowship proposals, reviewers are asked to consider:

  • the suitability of the applicant (primary criterion)
  • research excellence (secondary criterion)
  • institutional support
  • commitment to EDI.

Panel members will consider these four areas when ranking proposals and providing a funding recommendation.

Strong applications will provide evidence to meet each of the criteria set out in the framework.

Proposals will be shortlisted for interview by a moderating sift panel consisting of independent experts and members of the NERC Peer Review College where possible.

Shortlisted applicants will be invited to deliver a presentation, followed by interview questions from the panel. These questions will consist of scientific questions raised by reviewers and panel members about your proposed work and non-scientific questions (such as leadership, career development or impact).

Reasonable adjustments to the interview set-up will be implemented for those who request it.

The panel will provide NERC with a ranked list of proposals for funding recommendation.

Detailed feedback will be provided to those applicants who are interviewed. Applicants unsuccessful at the moderating sift panel stage will be provided with their reviews as feedback.

NERC will use the recommendations of the interview panel along with the overall call requirements and the available budget in making the final funding decisions.

In order to identify future science leaders, the assessment process will concentrate on applicants’ research achievements, research potential and evidence of independence. This will be assessed in a way that is appropriate to their career stage (also recognising the potential impacts of career breaks).

NERC IRF competency framework

Assessors will judge applicants against these six criteria.

Research achievements

Competencies and examples:

  • have a track record of ambitious, innovative and productive research in their area which demonstrates an upward trajectory. For example, by producing high quality outputs such as:
    • datasets
    • software
    • inventions
    • patents
    • preprints
    • other commercial activities, in addition to research publications and seminar or conference presentations
  • demonstrate the ability to influence the research and innovation landscape (for example inputs on policy and practice)
  • have a network of research contacts including appropriate collaborations nationally, internationally and across disciplines
  • demonstrate ability and intentions to share your knowledge via training, teaching, supervising or co-supervising others including students, such as undergraduate, MSc or PhD
  • be able to explain the wider impact and societal relevance of their research
  • be able to communicate their research clearly to a range of specialist and non-specialist audiences and engage the general public with their research and activities.

Potential to lead research discipline

Competencies and examples:

  • have clear plans to establish their own research profile that will enable them to become an independent research leader and establish their own research team
  • for the appropriate career stage of the applicant, demonstrate potential to lead research, for example by having collaborated with teams in other departments, research organisations or other disciplines, or leading or being part of successful applications for grant proposal funding (including but not limited to: equipment bids, conference attendance, research projects)
  • for the appropriate career stage of the applicant, demonstrating evidence of recognition and leadership in the community on an international scale through mechanisms appropriate to their discipline
  • for the appropriate career stage of the applicant, show an understanding of how to influence their research field and awareness of ways to influence the wider research agenda. For example, through experience of participation in peer review, participation in internal committees, acting as an ambassador or advocate for a research field or theme, or influencing policy.

Ability to work independently

Competencies and examples:

  • have a clear long-term vision for their own research within the context of the broad research area within which they work
  • have their own research plans or ideas which are independent of their current group or previous mentors
  • have experience of leading and forging new collaborations with academic and non-academic stakeholders outside of previous groups and where relevant, across disciplines.


The proposal will be judged for its quality, timeliness, feasibility, novelty and vision.

The proposal should meet outstanding standards in terms of originality, quality and significance of the scientific question and how it is addressed.

Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI)

Competencies and examples:

  • should demonstrate a commitment to EDI through the proposed work
  • should demonstrate an approach and commitment to championing equality, diversity and inclusion by removing barriers in their research environment and promoting an open and inclusive research community.

Support from proposed host institution

To demonstrate a commitment to the development of NERC IRFs, the head of department of the host institution will be required to demonstrate:

  • the availability of structured institutional support, including infrastructure and facilities, funds to support research, and access to opportunities to work with and supervise PhD students
  • support for personal development of the fellow, including mentoring, appropriate review, and training courses.

Cross-council remit agreement (CCRA)

IRF applications that extend beyond the remit of a single research council, will be assessed by peer reviewers from across the relevant research disciplines. Decisions will be made through a single council’s peer review process.

Full details of the agreement can be found on the UKRI website.

COVID-19 impacts

NERC recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major interruptions and disruptions across our communities. NERC is committed to ensuring that individual applicants and their wider team, including partners and networks, are not penalised for any disruption to their career(s) such as:

  • breaks and delays
  • disruptive working patterns and conditions
  • the loss of on-going work
  • role changes that may have been caused by the pandemic.

Reviewers and panel members will be advised to consider the unequal impacts of the impact that COVID-19 related disruption might have had on the track record and career development of those individuals included in the proposal. They will be asked to consider the capability of the applicant and their wider team to deliver the research they are proposing.

Where disruptions have occurred applicants can highlight this within their application, if they wish, but there is no requirement to detail the specific circumstances that caused the disruption.

Contact details

Ask a question about this opportunity


Additional info

International researchers and specialists who are named, or have their position listed, on a successful grant may be eligible for the Global Talent Visa.

Reporting requirements

Successful applicants will be required to report research outcomes on Researchfish in line with standard UKRI terms and conditions on the UK Government Web Archive. This is required annually and continues for up to five years post grant end date.

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