Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Understanding changes in quality of UK freshwaters: Programme Champion

Apply for funding to lead the development of the UK freshwaters research programme strategy as the Programme Champion.

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

Research will include:

  • investigating how pollutants interact within rivers and supporting ecosystems
  • investigating how the infiltration and movement of pollutants will be amplified or mitigated by a changing hydrological cycle
  • supporting the improvement and development of tools to monitor and measure pollution.

You must submit a ‘notification of intent’ before your application proposal.

The full economic cost of this grant can be up to £625,000. NERC will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

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 (PSRE).

Find full details of eligible:

Investigators can be involved in no more than one application.

The Programme Champion role can be carried out by an individual, or by a small group of individuals with an identified lead.

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

You should note that the Programme Champions will not be eligible to apply for further research grant funding from this programme, including the research grant announcement of opportunity currently open under this programme.

This is a standard stipulation for all such posts and applies also to the Chair of the Programme Advisory Group. Its purpose is to counter any perceptions in the community that holders of such posts may have preferential access to funding.

For the avoidance of doubt, NERC wishes to make it clear that the restriction applies only to the named individuals and does not extend to members of their research department or organisation.

What we're looking for

Research programme scope

The Freshwater Quality research programme, ‘Understanding changes in quality of UK freshwaters’, will address a significant gap in our understanding of how pollutants enter, transform and interact within rivers, and with the ecosystems that rivers support.

It will consider how the infiltration and movement of pollutants will be amplified or mitigated by a changing hydrological cycle induced by climate change and other catchment changes.

Through the improvement and development of tools to monitor and measure contamination, as well as collaboration and engagement with key stakeholders, it will help the development of management and mitigation strategies for improving or sustaining the quality of rivers across the UK.

The overarching programme will enable transformative research in three thematic areas:

  • better understanding of how climate and catchment changes are affecting the sources and processes by which pollutants are entering, mixing, being transported through and leaving river systems
  • investigating the impact of mixtures of chemical (and biological) contaminants and their exposure regimes on the quality, ecology and biodiversity of UK river ecosystems
  • enabling and informing the development of better plans for adaptation, mitigation and detection of risks associated with declining river quality, now and in the future.

Programme aims

All projects funded under the initial Freshwater Quality programme announcement of opportunity (further details can be found in the ‘additional info’ section) should address multiple and interacting stressors as well as consider catchment-wide flows and dynamics.

These projects should be interdisciplinary, bringing together relevant experts from environmental science and other relevant disciplines and sectors in the UK that are needed to deliver the integrated cross-sectoral research required.

Projects should increase the understanding of how pollutants enter, transform, and interact within rivers, how that impacts on the quality of the ecosystems that rivers support, as well as how we can better adapt and mitigate future risks to river quality related to climate and other changes impacting the hydrological cycle.

We encourage innovative collaborations including with intervention-focused organisations or practitioners, creating a community of researchers and funding projects that span the three aims of the programme.

Collaborations should include steer from UK government, policy and regulators, to ensure that they enable sustained change and long-term benefits. Projects must work closely with relevant stakeholders during the design phase and throughout the lifespan of the project.

Funded projects must engage and collaborate with one another through the lifetime of their projects.

Key tasks

As Programme Champion, you will:

  • act as thought leader, flag bearer, and facilitate the development of the Freshwater Quality research programme coordination and delivery strategy
  • provide strategic advice to award holders and NERC regarding the broader research area of freshwater quality
  • lead on the communication strategy for the programme in order to publicise the activity, outputs and impacts of the programme
  • lead on managing integration between projects within the research programme, encouraging joint activities, where appropriate, under certain themes
  • use your expertise and connections with a range of stakeholders (for example public, government departments, devolved administrations, regulators, businesses and industry) in the freshwater quality area to link projects up with relevant people and organisations to maximise the impact of their research individually and as a collective
  • lead on and organise programme meetings and workshops to ensure that the knowledge generated by projects is shared with relevant stakeholders to help realise programme outcomes
  • support the Programme Advisory Group by attending meetings and providing updates as requested on progress of the projects and programme as a whole
  • proactively engage with the national and (where appropriate) international community to ensure that the UK Freshwater Quality programme has strong links and synergies with other relevant research programmes and initiatives, which might include the NERC-funded programmes
  • support programme management as required by NERC, including leading on project monitoring and programme-level reporting as well as ensuring appropriate evaluation and monitoring procedures are in place for the programme
  • lead on ensuring that all the programme’s commissioning and delivery risks are identified at the earliest opportunity, and that appropriate risk mitigation plans are put in place
  • lead on the data management strategy for the programme.

The Programme Champion role can be carried out by an individual, or by a small group of individuals with an identified lead.

You should note that the Programme Champions will not be eligible to apply for further research grant funding from the Freshwater Quality programme, including the research grant announcement of opportunity currently open under this programme.

Geographic focus

This work will be UK-focused and predominantly address environmental science research questions. However, projects could include research outputs that may support learning internationally and have relevance globally.


The outcomes of this research programme will:

  • strengthen our understanding of the sources and behaviour of pollutants within river systems
  • increase our knowledge and understanding of how pollutants are changing or accumulating within the environment and the impacts of those changes
  • help to reduce the pollutants loading to river systems
  • have the potential to influence policy in connection with regulations, for example local agricultural practices, waste-water organisations, industries, and domestic use
  • inform improvements to the ecological status of rivers in the UK
  • inform better adaptation and mitigation of risks which will improve essential ecosystems services such as cleaner air, extreme weather mitigation and links to improved human mental and physical wellbeing.


Apply for funding to take on the role of Programme Champion for the Freshwater Quality programme.

The Programme Champion will lead on supporting implementation of the programme, working closely with the Freshwater Quality grant holders, wider community and relevant stakeholders.

A grant of up to £625,000 is available of which NERC will contribute 80% of the full economic cost (fEC) for a period of up to 56 months, commencing 1 September 2022.

The funding can be used for the following:

  • staff time, including buying out teaching, if applicable
  • administration and project management support
  • communication support, including design and printing costs for reports and website hosting
  • research associates to support workshops and wider engagement
  • travel, networking and venues, for example
  • support for activities to integrate the different projects funded by the programme.

You should propose and justify the most appropriate support staff and associated researchers to work with the Programme Champion to deliver the requirements of the proposed work plan, demonstrating clear splits of responsibility between the Programme Champion and support staff and detail on how the team will work together.

Reporting requirements

Successful applicants will be required to support programme management as required by NERC. This includes leading on project monitoring and programme-level reporting as well as ensuring appropriate evaluation and monitoring procedures are in place for the programme.

The Programme Champion will report to the Programme Advisory Group quarterly along with the Freshwater Quality award holders.

Delivery and coordination

A Freshwater Quality Programme Advisory Group (PAG) will be set up to provide a coordination function and to ensure the effective delivery of the programme.

The PAG will be appointed by NERC and will include members who have experience in developing and delivering similar programmes, relevant academics as well as representation from a range of other stakeholders (including policy and regulators).

The PAG will, among other things:

  • assess the progress of all funded projects every six months
  • maximise opportunities to secure stronger outcomes from the programme’s funded projects.

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 on 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 (EDI).

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.

How to apply

Notification of intent

If you wish to submit a proposal, you must register a notification of intent for your plans by 16:00 on 6 May 2022. Please use the notification of intent Word template provided.

Only those who have registered a notification of intent will be able to submit a proposal.

The notifications of intent will be used to inform NERC’s plans for the assessment panel.

Email your notification of intent to


You must apply by using the Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system. When applying, select:

  • council: NERC
  • document type: standard
  • scheme: directed
  • NERC Freshwater Quality Champions

To allow you additional time to prepare proposals, we are announcing this before the funding opportunity opens for proposals on Je-S on 12 May 2022.

This funding opportunity will close at 16:00 on 8 June 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:

Formatting your proposal

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.

The font, paragraphing and page layout specifications do 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 point.

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.

You should ensure that your proposal conforms to all eligibility and submission rules, or your 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:

Personal statement

Up to five A4 pages (use the ‘case for support’ in Je-S).

Your first page should describe the your vision for the research area and the following pages should cover:

  • how you fit the assessment criteria and person specification, identifying any research gaps and how you will fulfil these aspects. You should give relevant examples for each criterion
  • why you want the role and what you will bring to it
  • how you will foster collaboration and community engagement (including research, practitioners, decision-makers and users)
  • how you will implement broader communications for the programme, including links to other relevant national and international research programmes
  • how you will coordinate the programme and integrate the multiple programme activities throughout its lifetime
  • how much time you expect to commit to the role and how you will manage other existing commitments while undertaking it
  • your proposed mechanisms for monitoring programme activities, particularly those related to outcomes and impacts
  • how you will demonstrable links to stakeholders relevant to Freshwater Quality.
Community engagement plan

Up to three A4 pages (use ‘work plan’ in Je-S).

You must detail how you intend to engage with the wider community (including research, policy and business) to build a multi- and inter-disciplinary community and your approach to establishing a strategy for delivery of the programme. This will include:

  • how you will consult with the community to build a community led programme of research
  • how you will consult with the relevant stakeholders and understand their needs to inform the research questions
  • how you will identify the key research challenges and themes which underpin the objectives of the programme.
Justification of resources

Up to two A4 pages.

This should be a narrative description of your need for the resources requested. This can include administrative support, buying out teaching time (if required), funding workshops, venues, travel and networking events.

How we will assess your application

Proposals received will be reviewed by an independent panel of experts using the assessment criteria and person specification below.

The panel review is anticipated to take place during the week commencing 4 July 2022.

Following the panel review, the strongest proposals will be invited for an interview. Interviews will take place one week after the assessment panel and will take place the week commencing 11 July 2022.

Applicants should hold these dates in their diaries in advance as it may not be possible to amend the interview timetable post assessment panel.

The successful applicants must commence their role by 1 September 2022.

In the event of this opportunity being substantially oversubscribed as to be unmanageable, NERC reserves the right to modify the assessment process.

Assessment criteria and person specification

Since this is an assessment of you and your ability to lead, the standard UKRI assessment criteria, such as quality of research, national importance and impact, do not apply to the process.

Instead, a competency-based person specification is used to describe the desired qualities, skills, experience, and attributes expected to be demonstrated by a successful applicant, as provided below.

The role isn’t just about research coordination, but is more outward facing in terms of engagement with stakeholders and understanding the research landscape.

Where an application is made for Programme Champions, the applicants will be considered jointly against the assessment criteria.

The candidate (primary criterion)

Thought leadership

You must:

  • demonstrate that you are mindful of the current research landscape (including academic and PSRE research)
  • show evidence that you are able to assemble key information across disciplines to build a compelling narrative and communicate this, effectively, to the right stakeholders at the right time
  • be able to demonstrate how you have given advice to or influenced industrial users of the research or policy makers.
Inspirational team leader criteria

You must demonstrate your ability to guide and inspire others and to identify and maximise potential in others (get the best out of people).

Community ambassador

You must:

  • give evidence of a profile within the research community for research excellence
  • demonstrate you can act as a figurehead for the freshwater community
  • demonstrate how you would act as an ambassador to the wider research and user communities and advocate for a research field or theme and for research in general.
Strategic vision

You must:

  • be a strategic thinker who is focused on ensuring the multidisciplinary research achieves maximum impact
  • demonstrate an aptitude for identifying, exploring and developing research opportunities more broadly and across different interfaces
  • demonstrate where you have positioned yourself to take up opportunities and have the ability to make decisions to deliver your vision.
Track record of coordinating research and translation

You must have a track record of:

  • coordinating complex investments of outstanding research
  • delivering demonstrable impact
  • translating research outputs to users (for example to industry, the innovation infrastructure or HM government) at both the national and international level.
Understanding of the freshwater landscape

You can demonstrate that you are not only focused on your specific research but can also take a systems view of freshwater research.

You will also have a good understanding of the interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research which is required to form a meaningful and cohesive programme of research to address the objectives of the programme.

Communication and engagement skills


You must demonstrate excellent communication and interpersonal skills.


You must have the ability to implement the comprehensive stakeholder mapping exercises needed to identify key audiences and develop strategies for engagement.

It is recognised that the skills needed for effective knowledge exchange may not, necessarily, reside with the leader but you should be able to facilitate others to carry out these tasks.

Host institute environment

The host institute must demonstrate how it will support the applicant during the length of the freshwater programme.

Resources and management

You must be able to justify the planning and project management of the grant, including the management of any staff requested.

You must be able to demonstrate that the resources requested in this application are justified and appropriate for delivering the proposed outcomes.

You must identify the main risks and put contingencies in place.


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.

Impact of COVID-19

UKRI recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major interruptions and disruptions across our communities. We are committed to ensuring that individual applicants and their wider team, including partners and networks, are not penalised for any disruption to their careers.

This might have included:

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

Panel members will be advised to consider the unequal impacts 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, you can highlight this within your application, if you wish, but there is no requirement to detail the specific circumstances that caused the disruption.

Contact details

Get help with developing your proposal

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.

Ask about this funding opportunity


We aim to respond within three working days.

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Additional info


The scientifically-informed EU Water Framework Directive was adopted in October 2000 to assess the current status of waters and introduce policies to improve water quality.

However, the recent RSPB troubled waters report (PDF, 3.3MB) describes how rivers and even protected wetlands are sufficiently polluted that there is significant ecological damage.

Every English river failed to reach ‘good ecological status’ and the general ecological status of many lakes, streams and other freshwater systems across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are continuing to decline, indicating a gap in our knowledge and understanding of the issues.

Learn more about how pollution is damaging UK rivers more than the public thinks (The Guardian).

Much of the pollution stems from agriculture, ineffective planning and sewage overflows. Despite organisational fines and sanctions, the recent water and sewerage companies in England: environmental performance report for 2020 (GOV.UK) indicates that pollution by chemicals and pathogens is a persistent issue.

Management practices such as precision agriculture have been designed and widely adopted to reduce chemical runoff from agriculture but rivers are among the most sensitive of all ecosystems to the effects of global change, with main stressors including agricultural intensification, hydromorphological alteration and climate change.

Climate change projections suggest that atmospheric circulations across the UK are changing and will continue to change. The hydrological cycle is thus changing, as a result influencing the size of chemical flux to freshwater systems, and the frequency by which this occurs.

In the context of changing hydroclimatological and hydroecological processes, less research has been conducted on water quality, freshwater ecosystems, and river and groundwater temperature than on rainfall and river flow, reinforcing the need for further investment in this area.

Other programme funding

NERC has published a funding opportunity for proposals for the ‘Understanding changes in quality of UK freshwaters’ research programme.

Strategic importance and timelines

Research-led understanding is needed to inform policy to regulate local agricultural practices, waste-water organisations, industries and domestic use of our freshwater resource, crucially needed now for the following reasons.

The recent ’Water and sewerage companies in England: environmental performance for 2020’ (GOV.UK) reiterates that pollution by chemicals and pathogens is an issue that is not subsiding. Fines and sanctions are being enforced, however the issue remains, further amplifying the need for better and more targeted research.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) (UK Parliament) launched an inquiry into water quality in rivers in recognition that water pollution remains a major problem in achieving targets established under the EU Water Framework Directive, which will be carried over in some form to targets under the forthcoming Environment Act.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s ‘Water quality in rivers’ report has now been published.

EU exit has necessitated the need for standalone UK water regulation in addition to regulations that are already in place.

A changing hydrological cycle means that it is necessary to identify a baseline to understand the current causes of ongoing deterioration in UK rivers, to predict changes to help develop management, adaptation and mitigation strategies that are ‘future-proofed’.

Technology, for example geographic information systems (GIS) using remotely-sensed data, eDNA, new approach methodologies and advanced machine learning models, is advancing, which enables us to better understand pollution and its impact on freshwater systems.

It is important that we know what the chemical environment will look like by the end of the 25-year environmental plan to drive policy thinking and impetus into what the UK is doing about pollution as a whole, as well as building the understanding of the linkages to climate change and the drive to net zero.

Supporting documents

Notification of intent template (Word, 24KB)

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