The projects will shed light on subjects like why the climate is warming at an uneven rate. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Exeter scientists receive the latest NERC funding for strategic research

University of Exeter researchers are pleased to be among the recipients of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) highlight topics grants – one of the new ways in which NERC is funding strategic research.

The three projects awarded to Exeter will help address some of the key challenges facing society, shedding light on subjects like why the climate is warming at an uneven rate with pronounced pauses and surges, what happens to nanoparticles as they move around the environment and break down, and how we can use new genetic techniques to measure biodiversity.

Professor Mat Collins, from Mathematics, Exeter’s principal investigator of the ‘Anomalous trends in surface temperature’ topic said: “This major NERC-funded project will allow us to examine in detail the reasons for decadal variations in global warming and test the major hypotheses that have been put forward.”

Led by the University Leeds, the £3m SMURPHS project (Securing Multidisciplinary UndeRstanding and Prediction of Hiatus and Surge events) will examine the physical processes responsible for decadal slow-downs and accelerations in global warming that have been the subject of much discussion among the scientific community and the media. Processes that will be examined include changes in forcing factors such as aerosol particles and natural variations involving the storage of heat in the ocean.

Professor Tamara Galloway (principal investigator) and Professor Charles Tyler from Biosciences are funded on a project ‘Tracking relevant nanomaterial transformations, exposure, uptake and effects in freshwater and soil systems’.

Nanotechnology is a new industry capable of addressing many of the grand societal challenges that face our modern world, including green energy, new functional materials and better methods of drug delivery. Led by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the aim of this £1m collaborative project is to understand how environmental transformations change the bioavailability and toxicity of nanomaterials in the environment for realistic exposure concentrations. This research will be undertaken for a range of nanomaterials differing in their physical and chemical characteristics. By studying what happens to nanoparticles and nanoplastics once they are released, the project will help to support the development of safer materials and to protect the natural environment at the same time.

Professor Galloway said: “In this exciting project we will investigate what actually happens to nanoparticles in the environment and how they might enter the food chain.”

Professor Tyler said: “Much research has been conducted on the toxicological properties of pristine nanomaterials, but little on how nanomaterials are transformed in natural ecosystems and what bearing this has on their toxicity, a knowledge gap we aim to help fill within this project.”

Professor Thomas Richards from Biosciences is Exeter’s principal investigator for the ‘Calibrating eDNA Tools for Biodiversity Monitoring in the Ocean’, a £1m project led by the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Professor Iain Gillespie, NERC’s director of science and innovation, said: “It’s fantastic to see science emerging to address these highlight topics, which will be central to delivering the priorities in the NERC strategy. This is a great first cohort of projects from our new funding route.”

Professor Angela Hatton, chair of NERC’s Science Board, said: “Highlight topics are designed to give the scientific community a greater role in identifying areas that need strategic research funding. This first group of projects will provide important knowledge to help society deal with problems including biodiversity loss, nanoparticle pollution and environmental change.”

Professor Graham Underwood, chairman of NERC’s Strategic Programme Advisory Group (SPAG) said: “The environmental science community responded magnificently to the challenges of the first highlight topics and these projects are well-aligned with the aims of SPAG. I’d like to thank all the applicants and those involved in the assessment that selected these excellent projects.”

Projects were selected by peer review from a high-quality field with a success rate of 29 per cent. The design of the scheme, with competition within and between highlight topics, meant that a project addressing the ‘integrated dynamics of natural capital systems’ could not be supported in this round.

Date: 27 October 2015

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