New high risk, high reward studies will tackle key unanswered questions about our planet

NERC has invested £25 million in a host of high risk, high reward research projects to tackle critical environment challenges

Grant and Award Announcement


NERC has invested £25 million in a host of high risk, high reward research projects to tackle critical environment challenges.

The 44 projects cover the full spectrum of environmental science including geology, atmospheric science, biodiversity and ecology.

The research will, for example: 

  • improve our understanding of volcanic activity such as eruptions a lava flows
  • age the Earth’s solid inner core
  • investigate historic mass extinction events
  • predict future changes to carbon storage and biodiversity of the amazon rainforest
  • study new microbes capable of consuming the powerful methane greenhouse gas
  • Establish which species are the most and least resilient to environmental changes

Lasting 3 to 4 years, the projects have received up to £1.3 million to conduct the research, which is a key part of NERC’s investment portfolio.

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham, Executive Chair of NERC, said:

“This investment supports researchers’ curiosity and imagination to enable discoveries that unlock new knowledge. The studies will tackle some the most critical unanswered questions about our planet.

“By supporting high risk, high reward environmental science, we are harnessing the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system to tackle large-scale, complex challenges.”

Further information

The projects are:

Explosive-effusive volcanic eruption transitions caused by pyroclast sintering

Fabian Wadsworth, Durham University         


NERC-NSFGEO Community And Structural Collapse During Mass Extinctions (CASCaDE)

Alexander Dunhill, University of Leeds         


On the edge?

Ian Main, University of Edinburgh     


Hydrothermal controls on caldera explosivity

Isobel Yeo, National Oceanography Centre 


Tracing volatile cycling during progressive subduction in the Mariana Forearc

Catriona Menzies, Durham University


SCREED: Supergene enrichment of carbonatite REE deposits

Martin Smith, University of Brighton  


Palaeomagnetic field behaviour in the Palaeozoic and the hunt for inner core birth

Andrew Biggin, University of Liverpool          


Enabling CO2 mineralisation through pore to field-scale tracking of carbonate precipitation: INCLUSION

Stuart Gilfillan, University of Edinburgh         


DV3M: Deforming Volcanoes with Dynamic Magma-Mush Models

James Hickey, University of Exeter


Magmatic volatiles in the fourth dimension

Margaret Hartley, University of Manchester



Christopher Hughes, University of Liverpool and Daniel Jones, NERC British Antarctic Survey


FUTURE-FLOOD: New estimates of evolving UK flood risk for improved climate resilience

Elizabeth Kendon, University of Bristol         


Silicon CycLing IN Glaciated environments

Katharine Hendry, NERC British Antarctic Survey   


Greenland ice marginal lake evolution as a driver of ice sheet change – how important are rising lake temperatures?

David Rippin, University of York        


Humid heat extremes in the Global (sub)Tropics (H2X)

Cathryn Birch, University of Leeds and Christopher Taylor, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology       


Enhanced carbon export driven by internal tides over the mid-Atlantic ridge (CarTRidge)

Jonathan Sharples, University of Liverpool,  Joanne Hopkins, National Oceanography Centre, Alberto Naveira Garabato, University of Southampton, Alex Poulton, Heriot-Watt University


A mising link between continental shelves and the deep sea: Addressing the overlooked role of land-detached submarine canyons

Mike Clare, National Oceanography Centre, Rob Hall, University of East Anglia


Waves, levees and impact pressures in snow avalanches

Nico Gray, The University of Manchester


Simulating UNder ice Shelf Extreme Topography (SUNSET)

John Taylor, University of Cambridge, Paul Holland, NERC British Antarctic Survey


Mobile Observations and quantification of Methane Emissions to inform National Targeting, Upscaling and Mitigation (MOMENTUM)

David Lowry, Royal Holloway, University of London


Investigating the potential for catastrophic collapse of Greenland’s ‘land’-terminating glacier margins

Peter Nienow, University of Edinburgh         


Towards Maximum Feasible Reduction in Aerosol Forcing Uncertainty (Aerosol-MFR)

Jill Johnson, University of Sheffield   


Next-Generation Modelling of Glacial Isostatic Adjustment

David Al-Attar, University of Cambridge        


RIFT-TIP: Rates of Ice Fracture and Timing of Tabular Iceberg Production

Oliver Marsh, NERC British Antarctic Survey           


Bridging theory to reality in projections of the Asian and West African monsoons (Bridge)

Ruth Geen, University of Birmingham           


The End of the Amazon Carbon Sink? (AMSINK)

Oliver Phillips, University of Leeds    


DMSP synthesis via a novel enzyme in cyanobacteria and diverse bacteria

David John Lea-Smith, University of East Anglia     


Integrating and predicting responses of natural systems to disturbances

Roberto Salguero-Gomez, University of Oxford       


Identifying novel microbial drivers to mitigate atmospheric methane emission

Laura Lehtovirta-Morley, University of East Anglia


Rainforest Fauna in the Anthropocene: an integrated approach to understanding impacts of climate and land use change (RAINFAUNA)

Jos Barlow, Lancaster University


Recovery pathways for lake ecosystems

Peter Langdon            University of Southampton    


Role Specialization and plasticity at the origin of eusociality

Jeremy Field, University of Exeter


Discovering The Molecular Basis For Carbon Storage In Soil For Food Security And Climate Change Mitigation

Ian Bull, University of Bristol  


Environmental and ecological drivers of tropical peatland methane dynamics across spatial scales

Nicholas Girkin, Cranfield University


Turbo-charging the mycorrhizosphere – Could more productive ecosystems threaten soil carbon stocks in boreal and sub-arctic zones of transition?

Philip Wookey, University of Stirling


A Novel Testing Paradigm to Identify and Manage Multiple Stressor Impacts on Wildlife

Frances Orton, University of the West of Scotland and Claus Svendsen, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology


What happens to the green stuff? Applying a novel zoogeochemical lens to ecosystem nutrient cycling

Kate Parr, University of Liverpool


Mitigating Microbial Hazards – Eliminating HABs risks in salmon farms

Linda Lawton, The Robert Gordon University


When does a supershedder become a superspreader?: The impact of individual-level heterogeneities on population-level transmission and spread

Amy Pedersen            University of Edinburgh         


The evolution of Chalk Sea ecosystems: biodiversity, resilience and ecological function in a warming world

Richard Twitchett, The Natural History Museum and Paul Bown, University College London


Was A Cold-blooded Strategy Key To Crocodile Survival Across Mass Extinctions?

Philip Mannion, University College London


The role of structural variants in rapid adaptation

Laura Kelly, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew


A palaeontological solution to the origin of the vertebrate pectoral girdle

Martin Brazeau, Imperial College London


Why did we start Fermenting cereals? A molecular dissection of Ancient Bread and Beer making (FABB)

Mark Thomas, University College London


From EurekAlert!

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Steve Richards
May 20, 2023 2:17 am

Lots of pure research there. Looks good.

old cocky
Reply to  Steve Richards
May 20, 2023 2:33 am

I wonder what they usually fund if they regard those as high risk?

Rich Davis
Reply to  old cocky
May 20, 2023 8:46 am

Think of the vast rewards obtainable from
“Palaeomagnetic field behaviour in the Palaeozoic and the hunt for inner core birth“

Maybe the biggest rewards will come from the spin-off benefits of the time machine they’ll need to pull that off.

old cocky
Reply to  Rich Davis
May 20, 2023 3:27 pm

I’m revealing my STEM bias, but pure research is worthwhile for its own sake. The total amount of money involved is pitifully small, in the greater scheme of things.

Rich Davis
Reply to  old cocky
May 20, 2023 5:56 pm

It’s not that I object to pure research by any means OC, but to the way it has been “sold”—as somehow a longshot bet that could pay off massively. Developing proxy evidence that points to when the inner core solidified may be worthwhile for a more complete understanding of the earth.

In my obtuseness I fail to see the high reward side of the equation. The high risk in a financial sense of spending money and getting nothing in return is easy to envision here.

old cocky
Reply to  Rich Davis
May 20, 2023 9:09 pm

Yes, the “high risk, high return” hype is silly.

To some extent it may have some validity in the long term (eg quantum mechanics, relativity, electricity), but pure research shouldn’t be about medium (applied research) or short term (development) payoffs.

Reply to  Steve Richards
May 20, 2023 8:25 am

I dunno… every title seems to indicate the researcher has first bent the knee to Catostropic Anthropgenic Global Warming and the goal of every one of these projects is only to prove It’s Worse Than We Thought.

Reply to  Steve Richards
May 21, 2023 7:17 am

Looks like a lot of my tax money being spent on bullshit research.

May 20, 2023 2:33 am

High risk?

“”Magmatic volatiles in the fourth dimension””

Money for nothing of use?

Richard Page
Reply to  strativarius
May 20, 2023 2:52 am

I don’t they mean the same fourth dimension as Star Trek. Sadly.

Reply to  strativarius
May 20, 2023 4:48 am

I’d like to search for the elusive unicorn around Fiji, Bali, etc. Just think of the reward if one were captured.

Reply to  Scissor
May 20, 2023 5:19 am

Well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s £797,938 wasted on a personal whim.

What’s the fourth dimension?

Ten past two….. Saturday 20th May.

Rich Davis
Reply to  strativarius
May 20, 2023 8:56 am

Don’t talk such rubbish, strat. Margaret Hartley is getting 797,938 quid from that. Very useful to her.

Plus the Fourth Dimension – coolio!

Tom Abbott
May 20, 2023 3:00 am

What is “high risk” about any of those studies? Why would they be described in this way?

Joseph Zorzin
Reply to  Tom Abbott
May 20, 2023 6:16 am

saying that adds prestige points to the researchers- and helps their funding

Reply to  Tom Abbott
May 20, 2023 8:35 am

There’s a high risk people will find most of this research ridiculous, pointless and useless, and resent so much tax money spent on it?. It also has the potential, should scientific rigour return, any and all charlatanry will be exposed, and their only claim to relevance, their reputation, ruined.
I shall definitely look into some of the more interesting-looking ones, though I have to concur with redviper above.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  cilo
May 20, 2023 10:45 am

“There’s a high risk people will find most of this research ridiculous, pointless and useless, and resent so much tax money spent on it?.”

That would make sense. That’s the only high risk I can see.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
May 20, 2023 12:28 pm

They want a result within four years. That’s high risk for the researchers.
If they come up with nothing of value they are exposed.
Normally academia only requires papers to be published, not papers with actual meaningful results.

Peta of Newark
May 20, 2023 3:11 am

A humongous search for garbage, minutia, irrelevance, = confusing information with knowledge and reinforcing the magical thinking and propaganda.
Also empire-building and nice cushy jobs inside Ivory Towers.

One example, The Uni of Leeds submission “The End of the Amazon Carbon Sink? (AMSINK)

I point you to, attached here and now disappeared from NASA, an original image of what the CO2 Sputnik saw in Sep 2014
Look carefully at where the big forests are and you’ll see an abundance of CO2, where it’s not supposed to be,…
….and a dearth of CO2 where it is supposed to be (the industrial North and cities – even China doesn’t show too well)

Compare what you read in as an assertion made in the Leeds submission
i.e. Quote: So far intact Amazon forests have provided a huge ‘sink’ for carbon, slowing climate change.

what the he11 is going on here

OCO2 Big Forest CO2.JPG
May 20, 2023 3:20 am

And so the battle against evil Carbon Dioxide is seen to be transferred to evil Methane!

Steve Case
Reply to  mikelowe2013
May 20, 2023 4:47 am

Global Warming Potential (Number of times more powerful than CO2) 
of CH4 over the years:

FAR 1990 GWP 63
SAR 1995 GWP 56 
TAR 2001 GWP 62
AR4 2007 GWP 72
AR5 2013 GWP 85
AR6 2021 GWP 82.5

But climate science NEVER tells us how much methane will run-up global temperature. Media reporters and bureaucrats never ask, So virtually nobody knows. Most estimates from various posts here at WUWT are less than 0.1°C by 2100.

Reply to  mikelowe2013
May 20, 2023 4:50 am

A battle against microbes. You might be interested in this:

Joseph Zorzin
Reply to  mikelowe2013
May 20, 2023 6:18 am

makes me think of how Brits say me-thane (sounds funny to me) and we Yanks say meth-ane

Reply to  Joseph Zorzin
May 20, 2023 8:37 am

Yeah, but you Yanks make a laboratory sound like a toilet 🙂

Roger Collier
May 20, 2023 4:16 am

Why did we start Fermenting cereals? Because we didn’t have any grapes. Can I have my £600k please. Or do I have to mention climate change? Perhaps we didn’t have any grapes until.the Roman Warm Period.

Reply to  Roger Collier
May 20, 2023 4:20 am

The Minoans did…

Reply to  strativarius
May 20, 2023 8:38 am

…and they made beer, I’m pretty sure.

old cocky
Reply to  cilo
May 20, 2023 4:08 pm

I think the Egyptians did as well.

Alexy Scherbakoff
May 20, 2023 5:32 am

Will they be able to turn peas into beans?

michael hart
May 20, 2023 5:39 am

“By supporting high risk, high reward environmental science, …”

Translation: We will funnel lots of money towards projects that offer no visible return on a human’s timescale.

Most environmental science is just a hobby or living for people who like the outdoors and fluffy animals. We already know much of the risk of building on an active volcano or a flood plain. The return is not building there.

What new high risk and high return is generated by these projects? (PS Some of my best friends have been vulcanologists.)

Rich Davis
Reply to  michael hart
May 20, 2023 9:18 am

Some of my best friends have been vulcanologists

I know someone who once met Leonard Nimoy, does that count?

michael hart
Reply to  Rich Davis
May 20, 2023 11:48 am

I think it’s a mostly British spelling. The Vulcanologist I knew best described herself as such.

Rich Davis
Reply to  michael hart
May 20, 2023 12:12 pm

What do the Brits know about the English language? They are simply atrocious spellers!

Right-Handed Shark
May 20, 2023 6:21 am

For a moment there I was afraid they might be wasting money.

Reply to  Right-Handed Shark
May 20, 2023 8:42 am

Yeah, me too. Until I saw we are going to learn about climate change by analysing the turds of extinct bug species. I knew there was a way to end this runaway overheating terror of spoilt millionaire brats bored with video games and in need of something that looks like a job.

May 20, 2023 8:33 am

Looks like a quarter of these are computer games. For the rest, if done correctly, the field studies could get good data that will then be massaged into something that supports the going-in position. Then someone here will have to actually analyze the supplemental materials for raw data and statistical shenanigans to show it is really the same as it ever was and the sky is not falling after all.

May 20, 2023 8:53 am

Looks like a lot of boondoggles to support otherwise unemployable academics.

May 20, 2023 9:00 am

Somehow, I opened one of those links, and it is a CIRES poster explaining some theory on methane metrology. The language reminds me of that time congress was forced to discuss standardising Pi to 3.0 to facilitate the squaring of the circle, I think it was?

Lonnie E. Schubert
May 20, 2023 9:16 am

Well, Mr. Moderator, I’m not sure the point, as you gave no commentary.

The simple reality of grants under $3M, especially under $1M, is they are welfare efforts for grad students. The list was too esoteric to be concerned with, as each is essentially some researcher’s thesis or get-by livelihood. I won’t complain about that, except to note it is quite inefficient.

It is bothersome to see them called “high risk, high reward.” Some are dangerous, most are worthless, and none will provide reward worth considering on the whole. Oh well.

May 20, 2023 10:16 am

The first couple sound useful, though I’m not sure what the second one is about.
After the 3rd, they go downhill really fast.

May 20, 2023 10:59 am

“Invested” 25 million?

”High risk” – meaning low probability of learning anything useful.

”High reward” – meaning good pay for useless academics and their students.

It is always amusing to read the latest spin that a marketing and communications office can concoct about otherwise mundane topics. Gotta keep those graduate student stipends flowing so that they can go on to become PhD shoe salesmen. Clearly this world has a super abundance of over-educated do nothings. In my administrative role in higher education, I regularly encounter young faculty-career hopefuls whose hopes have been quickly dashed on the rocks of the “system,” then having to retool to find real, meaningful employment outside of academia.

Most of the domestic jobs outside of operations, maintenance and services are in primary production (minerals; energy; agriculture), while design and manufacturing jobs are outsourced/offshored to Asia. Meanwhile, hopeless Western girls think they are boys, boys get their sex from the Internet, pets are now their children, and fewer are marrying if at all until their biological clocks are running out.

We are witnessing and living through the rapid, deliberate collapse of Western civilization.

May 20, 2023 6:42 pm

What is pure research and why is it good.

May 21, 2023 12:51 am

On the edge?

Ian Main, University of Edinburgh     


From the abstract:

For example, the onshore fracking industry in the UK triggered earthquakes as large as magnitude 2.9 in Lancashire, despite the introduction of a ‘traffic light system’ to manage the risk. 

As large as 2.9! OMG!

According to the University of Liverpool, a 2.9 magnitude earthquake is the same as dropping a 1kg bag of flour from a height of 1m (2.2lbs/3’3″ for the metrically challenged 😉 )

May 21, 2023 4:51 am

Looks to be lots of “High Risk” ‘Zero Reward‘ research.

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