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What is the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)?
Blog...What is the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)?

What is the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)?

Legislation & Standards
meadow surrounded by trees
In this article we’ll explore what the NERC is, and how it is helping to advance research and innovation in the field of climate change.
meadow surrounded by trees

The fight against climate change wouldn’t be possible were it not for the ground-breaking research helping us to better understand the causes and processes of global warming and environmental degradation. This research also paves the way for innovative solutions and the development of new technology. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) supports world-leading scientific research and innovation and is helping us to better predict environmental change.

👉 In this article we’ll explore what the NERC is, and how it is helping to advance research and innovation in the field of climate change. 

What is the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)?

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is the UK’s main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic sciences.

NERC was created in 1965 when several different environmental research organisations were brought together under the one body. Since then its scale and scope has increased and now the NERC is the driving force of investment in environmental science in the UK, investing up to £330 million every year. It advances environmental science through the commissioning of new research, infrastructure and training and invests public money in scientific projects that improve sustainability when it comes to nature and the environment. 

NERC and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

In April 2018 NERC became part of UK Research and Innovation which brings the UK’s seven research councils, Innovate UK, and Research England together under one umbrella. The aim of this move was to foster the best environment possible, allowing environmental research and innovation to flourish.

microscope with sample

What does the NERC do?

NERC’s responsibilities are set out in detail in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, but can be summarised as follows: 

  • Scientists working for the NERC undertake research that helps them to understand and monitor the physical, chemical and biological processes of our world. Their work isn’t restricted to just the UK, research covers all corners of the globe and even our atmosphere and space too. 
  • NERC supports research infrastructure, services, facilities and data centres. For example, NERC funding goes towards research stations, ships and aircraft, and satellite technology that allow researchers to monitor the environment on a global scale. 
  • NERC provides national goods services which includes things like the provision of advice for the UK Government in the case of an environmental emergency. 
  • Scientific research carried out by NERC provides knowledge, skills and technological innovation that promotes economic growth as well as societal benefits. NERC achieves this by working in partnership with business, the government, civil society, the public and the research community. 

Focus areas of the NERC

The NERC delivery plan focuses on eight priority areas that allow the NERC to both study environmental challenges and develop solutions. These are:

Environmental solutions

NERC promotes environmental solutions that foster sustainable growth and aims to support researchers as they tackle complex environmental issues.

Knowledge building

NERC aims to push the boundaries of understanding by challenging researchers to be ambitious in their use of new technologies and approaches. This will maintain the UK’s position as a leader in the field of environmental science.

Productive environment

This priority area encourages an understanding of how economic and environmental systems intersect and aims to ensure that environmental sustainability is embedded into economic models. NERC promotes the development of a circular economy.

Healthy environment

NERC promotes study of environmental change and risks, with the intention of increasing research to manage these risks through response and recovery, and the protection of lives.

Digital environment

NERC promotes the use of innovative technology, machine learning, battery technology and miniaturisation to deliver the most accurate and up to date weather information. In addition to this it aims to generate new insight via the use of state of the art computing to create virtual environments for data modelling.

Global environment

This priority area encompasses partnerships and international efforts to tackle global challenges, supporting international development and effectively responding to environmental emergencies.

Optimum environment for research and Innovation

NERC wants to build on its centres of expertise, infrastructure, services and facilities which contribute towards the UK environmental science community and global partners. This will also help to ensure that the talent of tomorrow is also being sufficiently nourished and invested in. 

person wearing gloves and looking at petri dish with plant inside

NERC achieves its priorities by providing funding to researchers, businesses, universities, NHS bodies, charities, NGOs and other institutions. The areas of investment and support are expansive, ranging from research into accelerator science to chemical reaction dynamics and mechanisms, to water engineering. A full list of their areas of investment and support can be found on their website.

In addition to funding research and development, NERC aso engages with a variety of different stakeholders directly. NERC works closely with a variety of people and organisations across the UK to effectively understand their stakeholders priorities. Members of the research and innovation community can voice their opinions at NERC engagement activities, take part in round table discussions, or provide written evidence via the UKRI Engagement hub. 

NERC also helps to shape UKRI strategy and council priorities by joining and contributing to advisory groups. 

Why is NERC important?

Global warming and environmental degradation is one of the biggest challenges that we face as a society. Surplus greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity have led us to the brink of catastrophe and we’re suffering from increasingly severe and frequent climate related events. 

Thankfully, the world is waking up to these challenges and the UK Government is increasingly introducing legislation and regulations that work to reduce carbon emissions across all sectors of the economy. But the fight against climate change is only possible with the help of environmental research and innovation. NERC is a crucial component of this as it funds and supports the creation of a ‘dynamic, diverse and inclusive system of research and innovation’. 

By bringing together different organisations and experts across different fields NERC facilitates the transfer of knowledge and innovative techniques. It operates as the driving force of investment in environmental science. NERC’s leading research, skills and infrastructure help solve major issues and bring direct benefits to the UK such as affordable clean energy, reductions in air pollution, and more resilient infrastructure. 

NERC impact

NERC is making a difference in the UK and globally by investing in and supporting research and scientific projects. Let’s take a look at its impact in a bit more detail:


Nature is worth over £1.2 trillion to the UK economy. But its value is not just financial, it also boosts the health and wellbeing of the nation. Sadly, over one million species across the globe are under threat from extinction, including 15% of all species in the UK. 

To tackle this issue, the UK Government has pledged to restore nature, prevent species loss and protect 30% of land and oceans by 2030. If the UK is to meet these ambitious aims it will require the help of innovative scientific solutions. 

NERC is able to help achieve these targets by: providing accurate data on species numbers and the features of ecosystems; predictive modelling and technology allowing us to better understand nature’s boundaries; improvement of management decisions and predicting threats; and by allowing access to cutting edge science in this area. 

Decades of NERC investment means that the UK government has access to incredibly useful research studies, for example the Isle of Rum Deer Study which has been running since 1972 and offers insight into genetic responses to climate change. Research and reports such as this mean that NERC is able to provide support when it comes to forming UK policy. NERC played a prominent role in the development of the UK’s 25 Year Environmental Plan and the UK National Ecosystem Assessment.

NERC also offers support when it comes to accessing cutting-edge technology. For example, access to data provided by new radar technology which allows satellite mission BIOMASS to map deforestation. Satellite imagery can also be used for things such as the mapping of grassland, woodland and water areas. This data helps the UK Government to take more informed decisions when it comes to protecting nature. 

NERC funded facilities and research also means that the data collected can be processed quicker and more accurately. This has also facilitated accurate modelling that can help to inform strategies and provide solutions to nature related problems. 

The impact of this work is not localised to the UK, NERC funded science helps to inform international policies too. For example NERC funded research played a pivotal role in the creation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species which aids in the assessment of the conservation status of plants and animals etc.  

NERC scientists and their research were also crucial in the formation of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which help to shape climate policies of national governments.

deer in snow

Climate change

NERC-supported climate research and has helped to shape international climate negotiations and direct the UK’s strategy when it comes to net zero. In fact, the UK’s net zero target was based on advice from the Independent Climate Change Committee who relied on the latest research and expertise from NERC funded projects and scientists. 

Decades worth of research has resulted in a stronger understanding of climate science and the effects of climate change. This knowledge has formed the basis for international agreements such as the 1987 Montreal Protocol which was informed by atmospheric data collected over a thirty year timeframe by NERC scientists. The treaty works to restore the earth's ozone layer and based on current recovery data, the ozone will be fully restored by 2075. 

icebergs in ocean

Air pollution

Air pollution is a huge issue and causes approximately 7 million premature deaths annually. In the UK, it represents the fourth largest danger to public health as well as costing businesses and health services around £20 billion annually. 

NERC research and data is helping to tackle the problem of air pollution. For example it was a key component in the formation of the UK’s 2019 Clean Air Strategy and paved the way for London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone. 

Another example of how NERC funded projects are helping to improve air quality is through the provision of data for London’s air quality forecast. This improves the accuracy of Met Office air quality data and even saves lives. 

factory releasing pollution into the air

These are just some of the examples of NERC-supported projects, research and initiatives that are helping the UK and international institutions in the fight against climate change, and helping to protect the environment. 

Scientific research and international collaboration are central to better understanding our impact on the world around us, and also in delivering solutions to global issues. NERC is renowned globally for the excellent work it does, and helps to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of climate related research and technological innovation. 

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