NERC Impact Awards 2023

The NERC Impact Awards ceremony in the Hintze Hall at the Natural History Museum, London.

The NERC Impact Awards ceremony in the Hintze Hall at the Natural History Museum, London.
Credit: NERC

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Impact Awards shone a spotlight on the vital role of environmental science in responsibly managing our planet.

Championing the impact of research from the NERC-funded environmental science community, the awards highlighted its significance in our everyday lives, spanning our society, economy, and environment. People are at the heart of the science we fund.

The competition was designed to celebrate the wide range of people and roles in the environmental science research community who contribute to impactful research.

Celebrating impact

Professor Peter Liss, Interim Executive Chair of NERC, said:

The 2023 NERC Impact Awards recognise the remarkable work of our environmental science community. The research of our winners, finalists and all this year’s entries is tackling some of the planet’s most pressing issues.

These include tracking COVID-19 during the pandemic in our wastewater, informing England’s biodiversity net gain policy and helping shape the global discourse on tackling climate change.

The inspiring impacts demonstrate the huge benefits that environmental science brings to our society, economy and environment.

I would like to congratulate the winners and finalists of this year’s NERC Impact Awards.

Recognising and rewarding scientists

The awards were judged by independent panels of academic, industry, government and public engagement figures using the Research Excellence Framework (REF) impact criteria of reach and significance.

The panels were chaired by Professor Kathryn Monk, Chair of the international Collaboration for Environmental Evidence and Honorary Professor at Swansea University.

Winners were announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum, London on 29 November 2023. Read the impact stories of this year’s NERC Impact Award winners and finalists in the 2023 Impact Awards brochure and view the videos showcasing their work on YouTube.

An overview of the winners, finalists and commended entrants is included below.


Overall Impact Award

Using wastewater to monitor the nation’s health: onwards from COVID-19

Team members:

  • Professor Davey Jones, Bangor University
  • Dr Kata Farkas, Bangor University
  • Dr Shelagh Malham, Bangor University
  • Professor William Gaze, University of Exeter

A team at Bangor University used their expertise to monitor the prevalence of COVID-19, at one point covering 80% of the UK population, through wastewater monitoring. The monitoring system played a crucial role in shaping national policy during the pandemic, and has since been adapted to measure many other diseases of public health concern in the UK and globally.

Impact Award Winner: Early Career Impact

Shaping England’s new biodiversity net gain policy

Dr Sophus zu Ermgassen, University of Oxford

Dr Sophus zu Ermgassen’s research has raised public awareness about England’s biodiversity net gain policy, a strategy to develop land and contribute to the recovery of nature, and played a crucial role in shaping its design and implementation.

Evidence from the research has influenced policy changes, including £8 million in increased funding by the government to local authorities, helping to ensure the necessary measures are in place to improve environmental outcomes.

Impact Award Winner: Economic Impact

Protecting satellites with daily space weather forecasts

Team members:

  • Professor Richard Horne, British Antarctic Survey (BAS)
  • Dr Sarah Glauert, BAS
  • Dr Peter Kirsch, BAS
  • Dr Nigel Meredith, BAS

Space weather forecasts produced by a team at BAS play a vital role in protecting satellites from the dangers of radiation high above the Earth’s atmosphere. Ongoing research has also protected the UK’s population and economy by helping the government understand the impacts of space weather and the risks it poses to daily life.

Impact Award Winner: Public Engagement Impact

Bringing together citizen scientists and regulators to monitor the River Wye and beyond

Team members:

  • Dr Dr Liz Bagshaw, University of Bristol (formerly Cardiff University)
  • Dr Roo Perkins, Cardiff University
  • Elle von Benzon, Cardiff University

A team at Cardiff University has brought together citizen scientist groups, agencies and regulators to transform our knowledge of pollution in the River Wye.

The project’s methods have been adopted by over 180 citizen scientist groups who are providing samples of water across 15,000 sampling points in the UK. This data is freely available and used by regulators, helping to improve freshwater systems across the UK.

Impact Award Winner: Societal Impact

Speeding up climate change simulations to tackle global warming

Team members:

  • Professor Piers Forster, University of Leeds
  • Dr Chris Smith, University of Leeds

A team at the University of Leeds developed an ultra-fast computer model that has transformed our understanding of the connection between global temperatures and the amount of emissions we release into the atmosphere.

This research has helped shape the discourse on tackling climate change, it has played a crucial role in informing international climate policies linked to the Paris agreement and helped nations to enshrine net zero emissions targets into law.


Finalist: Early Career Impact

Whales and walruses from space: using satellite imagery for conservation

Dr Hannah Cubaynes, BAS

Dr Hannah Cubaynes from BAS has developed a new way to monitor wildlife from space. The research has reduced the cost and risk of surveys and helped turn thousands of people worldwide into engaged citizen scientists, all to the benefit of wildlife including whales and walruses.

Finalist: Economic and Societal Impact

Tackling the human and financial cost of flooding

Team members:

  • Professor Paul Bates, University of Bristol and Fathom
  • Dr Jeffrey Neal, University of Bristol and Fathom
  • Dr Andy Smith, Fathom
  • Dr Chris Sampson, Fathom

A team at the University of Bristol has pioneered the development of high-resolution flood prediction models, which has resulted in a spin-out company that is a global leader in water risk intelligence.

This research has revolutionised decision-making for a diverse range of users, and protects infrastructure valued at over $1 trillion, thanks to improved flood risk management in the UK and across the world.

Finalist: Economic and Societal Impact

Protecting subsea global telecommunications networks

Team members:

  • Dr Michael Clare, National Oceanography Centre (NOC)
  • Dr Brian Bett, NOC
  • Dr Christine Sams, NOC
  • Dr Gaye Bayrakci, NOC
  • Dr Isobel Yeo, NOC
  • Dr James Hunt, NOC
  • Dr Jennifer Brown, NOC
  • Dr Lucy Bricheno, NOC
  • Dr Veerle Huvenne, NOC
  • Dr Yevgeny Aksenov, NOC
  • Professor Ivan Haigh, University of Southampton
  • Dr Esther Sumner, University of Southampton
  • Dr Edward Pope, Durham University
  • Dr Matthieu Cartigny, Durham University
  • Dr Megan Baker, Durham University
  • Professor Peter Talling, Durham University
  • Professor Christine Peirce, Durham University
  • Dr Sanem Acikalin, Newcastle University
  • Professor Jeff Neasham, Newcastle University
  • Dr Steve Simmons, University of Hull
  • Professor Dan Parsons, Loughborough University

A team at the NOC has transformed how we protect the vulnerable network of subsea cables. The cables carry 99% of the world’s data traffic, including the internet, defence information, financial transactions and other services that underpin our daily lives.

The research is already being used in national risk assessments, potentially helping entire countries to avoid isolation and saving hundreds of millions of pounds.

Finalist: Environmental Impact

Protecting sensitive species and habitats in Antarctica and beyond

Team members:

  • Professor Richard Phillips, BAS
  • Dr Jennifer Jackson, BAS
  • Dr Kevin Hughes, BAS
  • Dr Susie Grant, BAS

BAS has provided critical expertise and evidence that has had a profound impact on conservation, sustainability, and climate awareness in Antarctica.

This includes the designation of marine protected areas covering 3.3 million square kilometres, representing 12% of total marine area protected globally, identifying 204 important bird and biodiversity areas, and eradicating a non-native species of grass.

Finalist: Societal Impact

Spurring global action against ocean acidification

Team members:

  • Professor Stephen Widdicombe, Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML)
  • Dr Jerry Blackford, PML
  • Dr Helen Findlay, PML
  • Dr Carol Turley, PML

Research led by a team at PML has raised awareness of the potential consequences of rising ocean acidity, which impacts biodiversity, fisheries, aquaculture, food security, tourism, and marine-based economies. This work has driven international policy change and provided crucial data to the UK government to contribute to its compliance with United Nations ocean acidification goals.

To enable the panels to consider the full breadth of the impacts entered, entries were judged for the reach and significance of all of the impacts described. Once the winners and finalists were identified, the awards were named according to the major impact type (for example, ‘societal’ impact).

Each winner was awarded £12,000 and each finalist received £7,000 to further the impacts of their research. The overall winner judged to have had the most significant impact was awarded £20,000. Winners were announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum on 29 November 2023.

Commended entries

Congratulations also go to five entries specially commended by the shortlisting panel:

Enabling sustainable fisheries management in the Southern Ocean

Team members:

  • Dr Simeon Hill with team from BAS
  • Dr Philip Hollyman with team from BAS

BAS research has contributed to sustainable fishing practices in the Southern Ocean and protection of the region’s biodiversity.

Evidence from BAS’s Ecosystems programme and long-term research on krill, birds and seals has influenced UK policy decisions, shaped international conservation regulations, and informed commercial fishing practices in the Southern Ocean worth $1 billion.

Advancing sea level understanding to protect millions from flooding worldwide

Team members:

  • Professor Ivan Haigh, University of Southampton
  • Dr Matt Wadey, University of Southampton
  • Dr Hagen Radtke, University of Southampton
  • Dr Mark Pickering, University of Southampton
  • Dr Robert Mawdsley, University of Southampton
  • Addina Inayatillah, University of Southampton
  • Sunke Trace-Kleeberg, University of Southampton
  • Professor Robert Nicholls, University of Southampton

Research at the University of Southampton has transformed understanding of sea-level changes and coastal flooding, influencing policy decisions to address growing flood risks and climate change indicators.

The work has been instrumental in protecting coastal areas and infrastructure, making the public more resilient to floods, and ensuring that climate change adaptation is a central part of policymaking and planning.

New ‘nowcasting’ technology creates a step change in surface-water flood prediction

Team members:

  • Professor Dapeng Yu, Loughborough University
  • Ms Sarah Johnson, Loughborough University
  • Professor Robert Wilby, Loughborough University
  • Dr Avinoam Baruch, Previsco
  • Dr Vivian Camacho-Suarez, Previsco
  • Dr Mingfu Guan, Previsco
  • Dr William Johnson, Previsco

The world’s first real-time street-level surface-water flood ‘nowcasting’ technology has led to significant improvements in surface-water flood forecasting capacity, enhancing resilience and helping to predict near-future flood events, all while saving lives, property and money.

Minimising air travel disruptions during the Icelandic volcanic eruptions

Professor Jim Haywood, University of Exeter

Research at the University of Exeter had a significant impact on aviation safety and operational practices following the Icelandic volcanic eruptions. Changes in practice based on this research kept UK airspace open, preventing widespread disruptions and potential costs of £500 million.

New green status of species recovery improves conservation efforts

Dr Molly Grace, University of Oxford (Early career entry)

A novel assessment framework has transformed how species recovery is measured. This work has provided a standardised approach to evaluating conservation success, and is helping scientists to plan future efforts with the highest return on investment for wildlife.

Previous round: 2018 NERC Impact Awards

The last round of NERC Impact Awards was held in 2018. View the videos of the previous award winners.

Last updated: 11 April 2024

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help improve our online products and services.