NERC Delivery Plan 2011-2015

In line with other research councils, NERC released its Delivery Plan for 2011 – 2015 [PDF] just before the Christmas break. These documents set out the research councils’ strategic priorities for the next four years – i.e. the anticipated duration of the current Coalition government – and in particular they outline how research councils will respond to the austerity measures laid out in last October’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

The headlines from the NERC plan are:

  • The programme budget (i.e. support for research grants, strategic programmes, postgraduate support, etc.) will be reduced by 3% by the end of the plan period. However, the capital budget will be cut by 50%. NERC anticipate that this will enable them to meet current capital spend commitments, but that they will be unable to make any new capital commitments during the plan period.
  • Increasing priority for strategic cross-council research programmes, such as Living with Environmental Change, Energy and Global Food Security. The budget for NERC’s strategic research programme will increase 11% in real terms across the plan period (Annex 1 – Financial Analysis, p25). By contrast, investment in responsive mode research grants will decrease 12% in real terms by 2014/15. This fits a broad pattern of research council strategy to concentrate funding in larger and longer grants with strategic economic and policy relevance. NERC’s goal is to “secure competitive advantage for the UK in the race to a global green economy, and ensure that the nation is resilient to environmental crisis” (p7).
  • In line with other research councils, NERC is seeking to manage down demand for responsive mode research grants (p2, p12). NERC already has a number of mechanisms in place for managing demand, including limiting the number of proposals PIs can submit, limiting resubmissions and requiring outline applications, but it is committed to consider other approaches. This is likely to include consideration of institutional sanctions and quotas as well as individual researcher sanctions, a method already employed by the EPSRC.
  • Demand management will also lead to further concentration of research funding: currently 80% of NERC funding is concentrated in just 25 HEIs, with the remaining 20% distributed among “essential pockets of niche excellence” (p14). The concentration of funding will likely increase further in the wake of measures adopted through this plan. Increasing concentration means it is even more essential for researchers seeking to win NERC funding to collaborate with research groups and institutions which are already successful in obtaining this funding.
  • NERC will maintain numbers of funded doctoral students (currently around 460/year) but will withdraw from funding taught masters courses, arguing that this should be funded by the students themselves as a “career investment” (p13).
  • NERC will focus on five key business sectors to drive economic growth and enhance the impact of its research. These are:
    • Marine renewable energy;
    • Environmental management for food and agriculture;
    • Water security;
    • Resource management (including minerals and waste);
    • Financial services risk management and valuation.
  • Knowledge exchange funding will be maintained at £16M throughout the plan to facilitate this (Annex 1 – Financial Analysis, p25). Increasing engagement and partnerships with businesses and other stakeholders in these sectors is seen as a major priority for NERC.