UK seeks physicists for environmental research

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Britain's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is to introduce a series of fellowships designed to encourage more physical scientists, computer scientists and molecular biologists to take up research on the environment.

“The environment presents the largest, the most serious and the most intractable challenges for the next 50 years,” says John Krebs, NERC's chief executive. He says this requires a “new breed” of scientist, and new ways of problem solving that cut across traditional disciplines.

The main goal of the fellowships is to tackle an expected shortage in Britain of environmental scientists with mathematical, computational and statistical skills. A second aim is to involve more natural and social scientists in helping to solve questions in environmental research.

NERC hopes to get molecular biologists to work with ecologists in prospecting for genes from plants with medicinal potential, for example, and in using biotechnology to clean up pollution in soil and water.

The council also wants to see more social scientists working with Earth scientists in research that places values on environmental goods and services, and on the planning and management of towns and cities.

Up to 30 four-year grants could be on offer, paying around £50,000 (US$82,000) a year. The sum includes the salaries of the main postdoctoral researcher and a research assistant, as well as research support.

“The big questions on the environment cannot be solved by one or two narrow disciplines on their own,” says Krebs. “Many of the most innovative advances occur at the interfaces between disciplines.”

Krebs says that NERC is not downgrading the importance of basic research, but plans to increase its investment in curiosity-driven research. It will soon launch five-year response-mode grants for basic research projects; its existing grants last three years.

“Anecdotal evidence tells us that there are not enough people with a physics or mathematics background going into the environmental sciences,” says Krebs. “We need to bring such people to help tackle problems in meteorology, hydrology and in the oceans.”

The grants and fellowships are expected to be announced after the government's Comprehensive Spending Review, due next month. Both schemes are part of NERC's latest science strategy, which was unveiled at the end of last month. A major aim of the strategy is to remove some of the uncertainty of research careers by tackling the issue of short-term contracts.

NERC's proposed four-year fellowships and five-year basic research grants are designed to provide more stability in research careers, and to encourage long-term interest in a field, says Krebs.

All contract staff employed for more than five years at NERC's research centres and surveys will either be offered permanent posts or released.

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Masood, E. UK seeks physicists for environmental research. Nature 393, 400 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/30797

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