Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Highlight topic funding rounds

The aim of the highlights programme is to support strategic research on a defined subject area.

Update December 2023: see section ‘Opportunities, support and resources available’

£159 million for rounds one to nine
2015 onwards
Partners involved:
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

The scope and what we're doing

A highlight topic focuses strategic research on a defined subject area. The size and duration of projects will be specified for each highlight topic every year.

Opportunities, support and resources available

Highlight Topics update December 2023

NERC’s Highlight Topics scheme is now in its tenth year. It is therefore considered an appropriate time to reflect on the impacts of the scheme and NERC intends to do this during 2024.

As such, there will not be a call for Highlight Topic ideas during 2024 while a review of the scheme is carried out. (Note that the NERC Big Ideas pipeline remains available as a means of identifying larger scale challenges that require substantial environmental research to be addressed.)

In light of the pause in ideas generation, NERC is taking the opportunity to elongate the commissioning timeline for the tenth round of Highlight Topic funding. The Round 10 funding opportunity will not be launched in December 2023 as per the usual timetable, but will be slightly delayed. Further details on the indicative timings for this funding opportunity will be published as soon as possible.

However, we would like to take this opportunity to provide details of the topics to be included in the forthcoming funding opportunity, which have been prioritised by NERC’s Science Committee and approved by the NERC Executive. They are as follows:

  • evaluation of oxidation in the tropics to improve projections of atmospheric composition
  • marine-based ice sheet contributions to past, present and future sea-level rise
  • signal to noise errors and implications for climate predictions and projections
  • understanding the threat of Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in the environment
  • pollutant deposition enhancement to upland ecosystems

Full details of the funding opportunity and how to apply will be published on the UKRI funding finder in due course.

Highlight Topic funding rounds webinar

Watch the webinar via Zoom.

Passcode: HTIdeas22!

View the webinar slides (PDF, 3MB).

This webinar was delivered and recorded in early 2022 and does not include information on the most recent investments made through the Highlight Topics scheme.

There have also been a number of personnel changes within NERC and externally, so some contact details provided at the time may now be inaccurate.

If you have any questions regarding the Highlight Topics scheme, we recommend you contact so your query can be directed to the relevant person.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Find details of past funding awards on Grants on the Web.

There have been nine rounds of highlight topics.

Round nine, funding opportunity closed March 2023

  • risks and impacts of climate tipping points
  • climate feedbacks from physical disturbance of the seafloor
  • temperature and health: towards environmental solutions in a changing climate
  • risks and co-benefits of ocean alkalinity enhancement and related carbon dioxide removal strategies on marine ecosystems
  • impacts of extreme weather events in Antarctica
  • building understanding of natural coastal protection by gravel barriers in a changing climate

Round eight, funding opportunity closed March 2022

  • eco-evolutionary drivers of emerging antifungal resistance
  • understanding and predicting changes in mountain water resources
  • advances in halocarbon research
  • mixing of stratified shelf sea biogeochemistry by offshore renewable energy
  • wildfire management tools in the UK
  • assessment and monitoring of urban geothermal resources
  • microbial community dynamics

Round seven, funding opportunity closed March 2021

  • ionosphere at multiple scales: scientific exploitation of the new EISCAT_3D radar
  • using system-wide approaches to understand and use environmental barriers to restrict or manage the spread of current and future zoonotic pathogens
  • creating resilient, productive and healthy urban environments through a novel understanding of ecosystem processes
  • drivers and climate implications of recent rapid loss of Antarctic sea ice
  • urban climate feedbacks between street, neighbourhood, and city scale processes
  • understanding the environmental basis for prevention of zoonotic pathogen emergence

Round six, funding opportunity closed March 2020

  • biodegradable plastics as emerging environmental pollutants: aimed to determine the potential environmental impact of biodegradable bioplastics to better understand the environmental effects of changing plastic production trends
  • understanding and predicting the cross-ecosystem impacts of insect decline on ecosystem services and natural capital: aimed to better understand the causes, mechanisms, and consequences of insect decline through taking a multiple taxa and drivers approach to understand the cascading consequences for insect-dependent species, ecosystem functions and services
  • marine terminating glaciers in the Earth system: aimed to better understand the coupling of Greenland’s marine terminating outlet glaciers and the ocean in the context of global climate variability, and in so doing, improve projections of its future dynamic response and sea-level contributions
  • achieving net environmental gain and resilient ecosystems in the UK: aimed to understand what mechanisms are at work in ecosystem restoration, how biodiversity, complexity, connectivity, feedback and resilience can be secured, with differing approaches to terrestrial system interventions
  • consequences of accelerating Arctic warming for European climate and extreme weather: aimed to increase understanding of atmospheric and oceanic circulation changes in response to Arctic warming and, more broadly, the drivers of European climate and extreme weather on decadal to centennial timescales
  • poly Isotopologues for constraining atmospheric budgets: aimed to integrate nascent techniques in isotope geochemistry into atmospheric monitoring science to study the rapidly changing modern atmosphere
  • understanding global lithium resources and cycles to enable a low carbon future: aimed to develop a holistic understanding of the global biogeochemical cycle for lithium

Round five, funding opportunity closed March 2019

  • marine noise pollution: understanding chronic effects: aimed to characterise current levels of chronic ocean sound and increase our understanding of the effects on marine fauna of chronic exposure to increased marine noise
  • understanding the likelihood and impact of UK wildfires: provided underpinning science and model development to quantify wildfire likelihood, impact and risk for the UK and similar highly populated, intensively managed regions
  • impact of experimental deep-sea mining in the central pacific: a new interdisciplinary challenge for UK environmental science – aimed to provide new insight into the actual impacts of deep-sea mining and provide a full assessment of ecosystem resilience
  • assessing large scale ecological responses to environmental change: sought to quantify and predict ecological stability across ecosystem types and scales, using quantifiable and transferable indicators of the persistence and resilience of ecosystems, and to identify the ecological processes governing resilience across ecosystem types
  • the impact of legacy waste in the coastal zone: aimed to determine the impacts of solid waste in the coastal zone on coastal and marine environments and transitional waters, to enable the associated risks to be managed
  • advancing capabilities to predict UK and European weather conditions one season ahead: to advance our fundamental understanding of the predictability of European climate on seasonal timescales and to ensure that these advances are translated into improved forecast capabilities
  • the mineral systems approach to exploration and discovery of new sediment hosted copper (Co, V) deposits: aimed to integrate methods and approaches used in both minerals and petroleum search spaces to develop a new minerals system approach for mineral exploration in sedimentary basins

Round four, funding opportunity closed March 2018

  • emerging risks from microplastics in the marine environment: aimed to build on the UK’s existing strong international standing in this field by supporting research that addressed a number of gaps in our understanding of marine microplastics and their potential impact on ecosystems
  • what is the 4PM? New understanding of soil organic carbon persistence to meet C offset targets: aimed to improve our fundamental knowledge of soil organic carbon (SOC) dynamics to help deliver carbon-offset targets through informing management practises that enable the sequestration of carbon in soil; to help inform current policy gaps and specifically explore options to deliver the ‘four pour mille’ (4p1000) initiative that advocates increasing SOC by 0.4% per year to both reduce the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and contribute to overall improved soil health
  • policy-relevant climate modelling to quantify and manage the risk of climate hazards: to deliver a state-of-the-art assessment of climate change hazards and approaches to managing associated risks, contributing to the sixth Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, CMIP6
  • deep subsurface heat as a potential major future energy resource: aimed to bring about a reappraisal of knowledge of deep geothermal energy in the UK
  • multiphase evolution of volcanic emission: aimed to improve characterisation of the multiphase processes experienced by volcanic emissions from source to sink to enable a significant step-change in our ability to predict eruption cloud evolution and deposition
  • preservation and potential of seafloor mineral resources: to enhance our knowledge of the metallogeny of the oceans in order to verify the strategic value of and contribute to the global assessment of deep-sea mineral resources
  • the impact of light pollution on biological processes: to provide an important evaluation of ecological and evolutionary consequences of the continuous and global increase in the extent of light pollution, specifically artificial light at night
  • understanding urban soil properties, functions, and below-ground interconnections in delivery of ecosystem services: aimed to improve knowledge of urban soils to better understand their properties and how they deliver the ecosystem services required of them, including support of green infrastructure projects; to inform on the quality and quantity of ecosystem services provided by soils across urban landscapes, enabling more effective management at a range of spatial and temporal scales relevant to contrasting urban environments
  • impacts of future ship traffic and emission regulations upon gas-phase chemistry, aerosol composition and radiative forcing in the North Atlantic and Arctic atmosphere: aimed to increase our understanding of the impact of future ship traffic and emission regulations upon gas-phase chemistry, aerosol composition and radiative forcing in the North Atlantic and Arctic atmosphere
  • objective verification of national carbon budgets for assessing climate change mitigation measures: to improve evaluation of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the sub-national and sectoral level; and provide better understanding of the UK’s GHG sources and sinks.

Round three, funding opportunity closed September 2016

  • new insights into space weather impact on UK national grounded infrastructure: aimed to enhance our geophysical understanding of how the UK near-surface and subsurface responds to severe space weather, information that will ultimately lead to tools for assessing space weather impacts on grounded infrastructure, together with industry and other partners
  • genesis of magmatic-hosted ore deposits: a systems approach – aimed to develop reliable proxies for distinguishing magmatic rocks associated with mineralisation from those that are not, and robust indicators of proximal mineralization from magmatic rocks and younger sediments
  • modelling and forecasting the Earth’s radiation belts: aimed to increase our understanding of the satellite environment by assessing the role of wave particle interactions in the acceleration and loss of radiation belt electrons
  • innovative application of big data techniques to natural hazard prediction and risk mitigation: to transform our understanding of and ability to respond to environmental hazards by delivering more accurate predictions and challenging our understanding of processes through the merger of both structured observation data, and unstructured or qualitative data, with state-of-the-art computational models

Round two, funding opportunity closed October 2015

  • evolutionary biotic response to environmental change: limits to adaptation – to improve our understanding and predictive capabilities of the dynamics of communities, and the limits of their adaptive capacities in response to environmental change through the integration of ecology and evolutionary genetics
  • coastal morphology: coastal sediment budgets and their role in coastal recovery – to better understand dynamic coastal processes, both physical and biological, and their role in coastal recovery
  • closing the global methane budget: to close the global methane budget through undertaking new observations and further analysis of existing data
  • reducing uncertainty in the integrity of potential carbon capture and storage sites: to improve knowledge of the integrity of the sedimentary overburden of potential CO2 storage reservoirs in the North Sea region

Round one, funding opportunity closed April 2015

  • understanding and predicting anomalous trends in surface temperature and implications for decadal to centennial climate behaviour: to better understand the causes of periods where the rate of global mean surface temperature is increased or decreased at decadal time-scales compared with long-term trends at centennial timescales, with a particular focus to understand the slowdown in the rate of warming since the late 1990s
  • environmental pathways, impacts and fate of manufactured nanomaterials: to increase the understanding of how manufactured nanomaterials (NMs) behave in the real world, including their transport, transformation, impact, and eventual fate within their environmental pathways, to inform the development of management strategies and policies that minimise the environmental and health risks of NMs without overly precautionary regulation
  • dynamics of freshwater ecosystems within an integrated landscape system: to support the research needed to develop a coherent ecosystems-based understanding of freshwater systems at the landscape scale in the UK, and underpin the development of sustainable management strategies
  • environmental DNA (eDNA): a key new tool for 21st century ecology: to address the current knowledge gap in the application of eDNA approaches to move from species identification (targeted genome sequencing) to full community profiles (metagenetics, using phylogenetic or functional marker genes) and understanding functional biodiversity and the dynamics of ecosystem functioning (metagenomics)

Who to contact

Highlight topics team


Last updated: 27 February 2024

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