A major UKRI scheme is supporting the UK’s tree-planting ambitions
UK Research and Innovation’s Future of Treescapes programme launched its first call, for multidisciplinary bids of up to £2 million, on 2 September.
The call is a collaboration between the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It asks for projects addressing one or more of the programme’s three themes related to UK treescapes: forms, functions and values; opportunities, barriers and pathways for expansion; and resilience to global change. The deadline for proposals is 8 December and UKRI expects up to six projects to be funded.
Simon Kerley, head of research for terrestrial ecosystems at NERC, and Weihao Zhong, senior programme manager for the council, describe what potential applicants can expect.
Where does this programme fit in with government policy?
SK: By 2050, we’re going to impose 1.5 million hectares of treescape on the UK. That’s an area roughly the size of Wales being planted in total, equivalent to an area the size of Manchester every year. We need to understand how these trees grow, what trees to grow and where to grow them. A lot of that basic, fundamental research is yet to be done to make it
Why the need for equal input from social sciences and the arts and humanities?
SK: Planting so many trees is not just an environmental challenge; it’s also a cultural, historical and social one. What are our cultural feelings regarding our landscape now and what our landscape needs to be in 2050? We can’t deliver this need for growing more trees without understanding the environmental, biological, social and cultural factors.
Should applicants refer to the background and the policy drivers in their bids?
SK: Applicants should be cognisant of the policy drivers and the changes that local and regional governments and land users need to make.
This is a strategic research programme call and that means it’s not just pure discovery science; it must have those strategic goals in mind.
Can bids engage with the major treescape-altering projects already underway—HS2 or the Northern Forest, for example?
SK: Yes, it’s important to look at such projects and provide the evidence base. Whether it is supportive or not, it’s important to get that evidence about what should be happening and the implications of planting those forests or altering the treescape.
Should all bids include input from areas relevant to all three councils, or would bids with input from just two areas work?
SK: If we don’t have researchers working together from all three perspectives, we’re not going to understand fully enough what the challenges and needs are. We’re in danger of missing something if we don’t get all three. But we recognise how hard it is for these three areas to come together.
Will the councils help with that?
SK: Yes. The AHRC recognises that it will need to do some priming for its community, so it intends to hold related webinars [which have now been arranged for 8 and 13 October]. UKRI will also hold a webinar bringing in all three disciplines. We have also appointed two ambassadors who will be involved in getting the research communities together. That’s Clive Potter from Imperial College London and Julie Urquhart from the University of Gloucestershire.
What else should potential applicants bear in mind?
WZ: We have seen before that when a truly multidisciplinary call like this is led by NERC, people think that projects should therefore be led by a natural environment researcher. That’s not correct. This is very much a joint programme with the other two councils and the proposal does not need to be led by the environmental sciences at all.
SK: During the review process, which will involve reviewers from all three communities, it will become clear when ideas and elements are just ‘bolt-ons’. It will become clear if applicants have brought somebody in at the last moment to satisfy the need for interdisciplinarity.
The limit for bids is £2m. Are you only interested in bids with that degree of ambition?
SK: You need to build the project that can answer the question that you’re posing or address the challenge. If that’s a £500,000 project, good. In our experience, though, something like this requires a lot of quite hard environmental science, which costs money, and then other disciplines’ perspectives must be involved as well, which will add to that cost. I would be surprised if someone could do such a project for the price of a standard grant. Also, this is the first call in the programme and it is for large grants. There will be further calls in the next couple of years for smaller grants, possibly with greater focus on specific challenges within this area.
WZ: Yes, and I should add that the £2m figure is a limit, not a target.
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