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NERC’s now-or-never grants

Image: Martin Abegglen [CC By-SA 2.0], via Flickr


Be sure you can hit the ground running before you apply

 The Natural Environment Research Council’s recent revamping of its responsive-mode schemes left one of them largely undisturbed: NERC’s Urgency Grants will continue to support research that needs to be carried out at short notice, most often spurred by the occurrence of sporadic natural events. Researchers can apply for up to £100,000, funded at 80 per cent of full economic cost, and projects are expected to last for up to a year. The scheme is open to applications year-round.

Most winners use their grants to study natural disasters and their impacts. But David Burslem, director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Biodiversity at the University of Aberdeen, who won his grant in 2019, is an exception. He explains why, for his study on a mass fruiting event in Borneo, an Urgency Grant was called for.

What did your project involve?

The purpose was to try to capture the extent to which trees are able to recruit—that is, generate the next cohort of seedlings—following a general masting event. [Masting refers to the intermittent production of large seed crops in perennial plants.]

Why Borneo?

Bornean forests have a very unusual pattern of reproduction. Most trees in nearly all families reproduce together in a very episodic way, and quite infrequently. 

There’s a possibility that the pattern of this masting behaviour is changing in response to climate change, because there is a climate signal to the induction of flowering and thus to fruiting. 

In addition, many of these forests have been exposed to logging, which has effects on the microclimate via alterations to the canopy. To better understand forest regeneration, we wanted to know whether the microclimatic changes resulting from logging are interacting with general climate change to affect the capacity of the forests to regenerate.

How long did you have to write the grant?

We got the news that the trees were coming into flower from our Malaysian counterparts and then we had about a 12-week window before the fruiting started. We wanted to capture the immediate effects after fruiting. 

In that time period, we had to write the proposal, have it reviewed, respond to any queries about the proposal and get all the logistics up and running in the forest.

Was that last part difficult?

In order to do research in Malaysia, you need a research permit, which can take several months to obtain. We were only able to propose this project because we had researchers in place who had permits that covered the sites we wanted to work at, and the topic as well. It was a fairly unique alignment of a rapid-response funding opportunity with a team available to deliver the work without having to ask for new permits.

About 20 years ago, after a previous flowering event in the same region, I won a NERC Urgency Grant. But then we didn’t have a team with the research permits in place and we had to return the grant.

What did you keep in mind when writing the grant?

We were aware of having a rare opportunity to deliver on the funding we needed to undertake this research. The grant needed to fulfil the fundamental requirements to be a competitive proposal, with some clear questions and a clear scientific objective. 

Our questions were around regeneration of forests, the delivery of the next cohort of trees and the capacity of trees to respond to logging. 

We also touched on the broader significance of the climate change agenda and the importance of regeneration of tropical forests for maintaining biodiversity and mitigating future greenhouse gas emissions.

Did you need to highlight the urgency of the project or did that communicate itself?

The urgency was apparent from the short timescale between flowering and fruiting, and the unpredictability of the flowering events. They only happen at roughly 3-to-11-year intervals. We had to respond very quickly because the maturation period is relatively short. We just had to apply for an Urgency Grant. NERC responded very quickly and made a rapid decision. It was a matter of weeks from beginning to end, as we required.

What advice do you have for other people applying for an Urgency Grant?

It’s important to have some discussion with NERC in advance, before you go through the trouble of writing a proposal. Not everything researchers might believe is an important topic for an Urgency Grant is necessarily viewed that way by NERC. In my experience, they’ve been very communicative and happy to respond to queries.

Once you’ve got the go-ahead to apply, it’s important to be realistic about your capacity to get it written in time. You need to think not just about what the funding can do for you but whether you have the logistics set up to deliver on it. As with our permit issue, that can be more significant a challenge than the availability of the funding.

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com