Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Understanding changes in quality of UK freshwaters

Apply for funding to investigate the changes in quality of UK freshwaters.

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 applying (see ‘how to apply’).

The full economic cost of your project can be up to £2 million. 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.

Projects should be led by academics from eligible research organisations and involve innovative collaborations with intervention-focused organisations or practitioners and other relevant stakeholders, where appropriate.

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 eligible:

You may be involved in no more than two proposals submitted to this funding opportunity and only one of these may be as the lead principal investigator.

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

Partnering with stakeholders

You are expected to collaborate with stakeholders (for example policy, regulatory or industry). This is to ensure that the outcomes of the research are designed to provide the evidence needed to support and inform the development of policy, management practices or regulations relating to UK rivers and wider freshwater systems.

Where possible, you should make every effort to build partner activity with stakeholders to:

  • add value to existing investments
  • align with ongoing activity
  • make use of partner knowledge and expertise.

You should consider where, in cooperation with these stakeholders, project partnership can add value to your proposal through cash, in-kind contributions, or both. Information on these partnership contributions should be clearly outlined within proposals.

Stakeholders that have already approached us

A number of stakeholders have already indicated in advance a desire to partner or collaborate with applicants to this freshwater quality funding opportunity.

Read the responses below from stakeholders interested in partnering. You are able to partner with organisations not listed within this section.

The Environment Agency

The Environment Agency welcomes the UK Freshwater Quality Programme and is able to offer the following support:

  • co-developing projects of mutual interest: we are particularly interested in understanding the dynamics of water quality now and in the future, and would be keen to shape research projects around this theme. As a public sector research establishment, we are eligible for funding in this funding opportunity and would be happy to discuss options
  • hosting knowledge exchange (KE) fellows and embedded researchers in the Chief Scientist’s Group to enable genuine two-way exchange of knowledge, information and experience
  • supporting the translation and dissemination of outputs from the programme, ensuring relevance and accessibility to non-specialist audiences
  • helping access and interpreting relevant data.

Please engage with us early on to ensure our support by emailing Megan Gawith ( We will not be able to support requests that are received late in the process and do not provide genuine opportunities for co-development and knowledge exchange.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)

Defra can offer applicants:

  • support in kind
  • updates on policy thinking
  • data and technical expertise sharing
  • engagement with Defra expert committees, their Science Advisory Council and appropriate policy teams.

Please contact Steve Morris ( who sits within the Analysis and Evidence team of the Floods and Water Directorate.

Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC)

JNCC is the public body that advises the UK government and devolved administrations on UK and international biodiversity, and nature conservation.

JNCC provides evidence, information and advice to relevant organisations so policy, planning and risk management decisions can be made that protect our natural resources.

JNCC holds substantive data repositories, environmental knowledge and assessment methods.

Where proposals are interested in research of relevance to JNCC (notably in connection with land use change, chemical pollution or proposals which affect all four countries of the UK), you may wish to approach JNCC for advice on proposals, potential links to policies or assessment techniques.

Please contact Hannah McGrath ( or Emily Forbes (

Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)

You may wish to approach SEPA to identify possible access to data and expertise for those elements that are directly related to SEPA’s regulatory responsibilities. Please contact Alistair Duguid ( in the first instance.

UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR)

Where proposals are interested in research of relevance to the water industry, you may wish to approach UKWIR to identify a possible partner from the UK water industry. Such partners may be able to offer access to sites, data, advice and other forms of in kind support, as appropriate.

Please contact Imad Ahmed (

What we're looking for


This programme 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.

Projects must address all three thematic areas.

Projects could choose to take a process-based approach (for example, considering agricultural runoff, sewage disposal into rivers or urban runoff) or to focus on certain mixtures or mixture regimes of contaminants.

Research should take a systems-wide approach and outcomes where possible should be applicable across the UK.

We hope to fund a range of projects through this programme, covering different elements and drivers of river quality in the UK.

Research themes

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

This theme encompasses exploration of how contaminants that degrade freshwater ecosystems (for example, chemicals, novel contaminants, sediments, pathogens and heavy metals) are entering river systems, including their groundwaters, and their dynamics within and fate thereafter.

This includes consideration of how emerging hydrological models and observations can help to better understand how fluxes and pools have been transformed by:

  • the spread and intensification of agriculture
  • atmospheric pollution
  • human waste, domestic and industrial pollutants
  • changes in UK weather patterns.

Elements of this theme might consider how climate change and other catchment changes might further affect contaminant loading to river systems and the fate of those contaminants (for example, through flash flooding, or under drought conditions).

Possible research questions include:

  • how do pollutants, chemicals, novel contaminants, sediments, pathogens and heavy metals, for example, make their way into river systems
  • how are changing climatic conditions impacting the hydrological cycle in terms of pollutants moving through or interacting with the environment
  • how can emerging hydrological models and observations help us to better understand how pools and fluxes of macronutrients might be transformed by the processes
  • how do differing pollutants and mixtures of pollutants flow into groundwater and river systems
  • how will climate change further impact pollutant loading in river systems?
Investigating the impact of mixtures of chemical (and biological) pollutants and their exposure regimes on the quality, ecology and biodiversity of UK freshwater ecosystems

The pollution stressors affecting UK river systems could have positive or negative effects on water quality depending on their location, as well as their interaction with other stressors.

This theme should allow projects to capitalise on current advances in technology as well as accelerating advances in the collection and analysis of data to identify types of pollutants and mixtures and their impact on UK rivers.

We are particularly interested in how more prevalent combinations of pollutants in UK rivers interact and the impacts on freshwater quality, ecology and biodiversity as a result.

Under this theme, projects should consider how residence time, repeated exposure and dynamics of pollutant mixtures affect their overall impact. This could include consideration of microbial activity in sediment and hydro-biochemical interactions.

This theme could also investigate the impact of contaminants on essential ecosystem services in the future, including water security, and human health and wellbeing.

Possible research questions include:

  • how can chemical dynamics and high-risk pollutant mixtures or hotspots be identified, and how can combined applications be used to predict how different chemicals or groups of pollutants and their impacts may change over time as a result of climate (temperature) and hydrological (timings, intensities of drought and flooding) change
  • how are changes in the water cycle and ambient temperature affecting how pollutant cocktails and shifting microbial populations are impacting freshwater ecosystems
  • what are the advances in the collection and analysis of data needed to aid understanding and prediction of the current and future health (beyond ecological status) of varying river systems across the UK
  • what are the more prevalent combinations of pollutants in UK river systems, do they interact, co-transport and co-bioaccumulate and what are the subsequent impacts on river aquatic ecology under current and future climate conditions
  • what are the impacts of temperature, flooding and drought conditions on pollutant residence times, organism fitness and resilience (of controls), and on the impacts of repeated exposure and dynamics of pollutants or pollutant mixtures on river quality, ecology and biodiversity
  • which mixtures are causing the most damage to river microbial activity and species sensitivity (aquatic organisms and plant life) across catchments and what does this mean for essential ecosystem services (including water security, and human health and wellbeing) in the future?
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

This theme is focused on improving and developing new tools to enable us to better predict and monitor changes in river quality in real time and at scale.

Projects should consider how their research could support and inform the development of new policy around regulation, management and sanctioning to improve water quality and security regionally or nationally. This might include the development of novel sensors and remote sensing technology.

Possible research challenges could include:

  • pilots developed with the combined application of non-target pollutant screening, insights from DNA or eDNA methods, integrated chemical and biological measurements and artificial intelligence or machine-learning to interrogate large datasets in order to make best use of long-term monitoring
  • research that can be upscaled to improve river and freshwater quality and security regionally or nationally and used to inform policy direction in those areas
  • research to better understand the driving factors of changes in river and freshwater quality (climate, land-use, agricultural practices, industrial activity, cultural and behavioural attitudes, impacts and interactions of pollutants) and how they will continue to elicit change over time
  • deeper understanding of how the hydrological cycle is changing, and is likely to continue to change over time, and will be utilised to develop and improve tools and resources to mitigate against future risks to ecosystems
  • research to build upon more efficient and effective real time or remote monitoring capabilities in rivers and catchments (upstream and downstream of discharges) and wastewater, particularly for emerging contaminants.


All projects should address multiple and interacting stressors as well as consider catchment-wide flows and dynamics.

Where appropriate, we encourage interdisciplinary approaches, 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 our understanding of how chemical (and biological) contaminants enter, transform, and interact within river systems, how that impacts on the quality of the ecosystems that they 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 those with intervention-focused organisations and practitioners, creating a community of researchers and funding projects that span the three thematic areas of the programme.

Collaborations should include steer from the UK government, devolved administrations, policy, regulators and industry, 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, and this will be facilitated through a dedicated Programme Champion aligned to the programme.

Further details about the Programme Champion can be found in the ‘additional information’ section.

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.

Existing research and models

You should ensure you are aware of relevant previous and current research in the field (funded by NERC and others) to avoid duplication and to ensure that your proposal is focused on delivering world-leading research. Relevant NERC programmes and activities include the following.

Emerging risks of chemicals in the environment

The area of investment and support emerging risks of chemicals in the environment aims to conduct research to predict how the environment and its functioning will respond to chemical exposure.

The anticipated outcome is a transformation in the way chemical risk assessment is considered, to move towards an ecosystems approach with greater ecological relevance.

Ecotoxicology risk assessment towards sustainable chemical use (ECORISC): centre for doctoral training

ECORISC (University of York) is a six-year NERC-funded centre for doctoral training.

The centre combines mechanistic understanding, theoretical advances and modelling approaches to contribute to the development of predictive risk assessment frameworks that will allow society to benefit from chemical use while ensuring protection of the natural environment, now and in the future.


Hydro-JULES (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) is a NERC national capability-funded research activity. These activities help the UK to support national strategic needs, respond to emergencies and deliver world-leading environmental science.

Hydro-JULES will build a three-dimensional community model of the terrestrial water cycle to underpin hydrological research in the UK.

Hydro-JULES is delivered by UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) in partnership with British Geological Survey (BGS) and National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS).

It is not a requirement for UKCEH to be partners on a proposal in order for applicants to make use of the Hydro-JULES model or outputs.


Projects funded under this 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 pollutant loading in river systems
  • have the potential to influence policy in connection with regulations for local agricultural practices, waste-water organisations, industries and domestic use
  • inform what is needed to improve the ecological status of river systems 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.

Data management

The NERC data policy must be adhered to, and an 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, but you should ensure that you request sufficient resource to cover preparation of data for archiving by the research team.

Reporting requirements

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

For strategic research investments, NERC additionally requires biannual progress reports. You will also be required to provide progress reports to the Freshwater Quality Programme Advisory Group (see the ‘delivery and coordination’ section).

In addition, you should produce a mid-term report covering both progress to date and proposed work plans to ensure the successful completion of your project.

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 Freshwater Quality Programme Advisory Group (PAG).

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

The PAG will be appointed by NERC and will include members who have experience in developing and delivering similar programmes as well as representation from a range of 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 just the host institution as a whole, and take action to enhance their responsible research approach where practical and reasonable.

Funding available

Proposals can request funding for up to 48 months and must commence by 1 November 2022. The full economic cost for each project will be up to £2 million (of which NERC will contribute 80% of the total). We anticipate funding between four to five projects.

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 27 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
  • call: NERC Freshwater Quality.

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

This funding opportunity will close at 16:00 on 28 July 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.

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.

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 eight sides of A4).
Outline data management plan

Write up to one side of A4. Successful grant holders will be required to produce a data management plan working with the relevant NERC data centre.

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 UKRI equipment threshold of £138,000 (£115,000 excluding VAT). For any justified equipment over £10,000 requests, NERC will pay for 100% (there is no expectation for a 50% contribution from the organisation).

Write up to two sides 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.

If you want to use most NERC facilities, you will need to submit a mandatory ‘technical assessment’ with your 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 19 September 2022.

Successful proposals must commence by 1 November 2022.

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

The assessment criteria will be:

  • research excellence
  • fit to scheme.

We will provide brief 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.

NERC may take a portfolio approach to final funding decisions to fund a range of projects under the programme. This approach will be subject to research excellence, fit to scheme and number of high-quality proposals received.

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 to become a Programme Champion for the ‘Understanding changes in quality of UK freshwaters’ research programme.

The Programme Champion will act as thought leader, flag bearer, and facilitate the development of the Freshwater Quality research programme strategy.

They will lead on supporting implementation of the programme, working closely with NERC, the UK freshwater quality grant holders, the wider community and relevant stakeholders to drive integration.

Strategic importance and timeliness

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 report 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 (PDF, 1.4MB) 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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