Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Digital environment

This theme aims to support and fund research that harnesses the new potential of the data revolution, including the continued growth of communication systems and bandwidth, and advances in miniaturisation and sensor technologies.

Partners involved:
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

The scope and what we're doing

Environmental science has long understood the data revolution. Forecasting and climate modelling have driven the need for big data and the evolution of high-performance computing, while Earth observation data has been exploited for decades.

The continued growth of communication systems and bandwidth, coupled with advances in miniaturisation and sensor technologies, provides new potential to visualise processes in the environment at all scales. This puts digital capacity right at the heart of the drive to deliver leaps in understanding in environmental science and the formulation of solutions.

By harnessing the power of digital technologies like digital twinning, artificial intelligence, machine learning, supercomputing, ‘internet of things’ devices, and environmental sensor networks, we can create detailed virtual environments to simulate alternative futures, opening up the exploration of options for decision making, environmental regulation, management and investment.

With autonomous platforms, we can extend our reach in extreme environments, from the polar regions to the edge of space, collecting vast data sets more efficiently and sustainably. With advances in battery technology, miniaturisation and wireless communications, we can add nowcasting to our forecasting capability to enable decision-making based on real-time feedback from the environment.

The Digital Environment theme seeks to cover the full feedback loop from data capture, through use of digital infrastructure, algorithms and analytics, insights and applications, to decision making and user engagement, while considering the upskilling and training required for present and future environmental scientists.

Some of our ambitions include:

  • investing in research and innovation that uses cutting-edge technology to advance environmental outcomes
  • grasping the possibility of harnessing the ground based, high-bandwidth terrestrial mobile phone network
  • employing the wide range of sensor technologies now available to connect to and visualise the local and national environment, enabling real-time decision-making and the deriving of new insights across disciplines
  • exploiting environmental data as a testbed for machine learning and analytics
  • combining environmental data with economic, health, social science and administrative data, to unlock insights, create digital services, contribute to smart cities and improve outcomes for people as well as the environment
  • continuing to exploit Earth observation data for scientific benefit from UK government investment in satellite programmes.

Some of our activities addressing these include:

  • delivery of the Strategic Priorities FundConstructing a Digital Environment programme to use networks of sensors and other technological advances to monitor the environment at a larger scale and enable more effective decision-making
  • delivery of the Digital Solutions programme which will exploit environmental and health data to create innovative digital services that deliver economic, societal and environmental benefits
  • investment in the Environmental Data Service to provide a single, large data service for the environmental science community, and investment in supercomputers to provide access to key data storage and processing services.

There are investments in centres for doctoral training in:

  • Earth observation data for Earth systems
  • modelling and quantitative skills in ecology and evolution
  • use of smart and autonomous observation for the environmental sciences
  • risk and mitigation using big data
  • application of artificial intelligence (AI) to the study of environmental risks
  • environmental intelligence – data science and AI for sustainable futures.

Who to contact

Ask a question about the programme


Last updated: 17 October 2022

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