This year in the UK, we’ve seen a new approach to PhDs in environmental research, with the establishment of a national network of Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
NERC is the principal funder of research and training in environmental science in the UK, investing public money to help sustain natural resources, predict and respond to natural hazards and understand environmental change.
Amongst others, DTPs established across the country include:
- The Great Western Four+ (GW4+) DTP, which brings together four research-intensive universities located in the South West of the UK (Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter), with six research partners including three of the six major NERC research centres – the British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey and the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, alongside the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Meteorological Office and Natural History Museum.
- The Central England NERC Training Alliance (CENTA) DTP, incorporating four universities from the Midlands region in the UK (Birmingham, Leicester, Loughborough and Warwick), alongside The Open University, and research institutes including the British Geological Survey and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
- The London NERC DTP, which consists of nine leading research institutions in the capital (University College London, Birkbeck University of London, Brunel University London, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, King’s College London, The Natural History Museum, Queen Mary University London, Royal Holloway University of London and the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London).
NERC has made funding available for five annual DTP cohort intakes (from 2014 to 2018), providing 240 studentships across the UK each year.
I am one of 36 students making up the first cohort of the London NERC DTP.
Over the first term of the DTP we have received training at each of the nine research institutions, which has been divided into different themes, drawing on the varied strengths of each institution.
At Royal Holloway’s Centre for Quaternary Research, we’ve learnt how the study of fossil records associated with past climates can provide valuable insights into the potential impacts of climate change on biodiversity across the globe.
At Brunel’s Institute for the Environment, we’ve learnt about environmental pollution, and the work being undertaken to assess the impacts of various widely used synthetic chemicals on the health of both humans and wildlife.
At UCL’s Centre for Environment and Biodiversity Research (CEBR) we’ve discussed a variety of issues facing scientists when addressing current rates of global biodiversity decline, including the impacts of invasive alien species and the use of indicators, such as the Living Planet Index (LPI), to monitor biodiversity.
Every Friday has been spent at the Natural History Museum for specialist training in the skills required to become effective research scientists. Amongst other topics, we’ve learnt about possible funding mechanisms available to early career scientists, approaches to writing academic publications and the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF).
At each institution, we’ve also received presentations from research scientists with potential PhD projects. Next term we chose our research projects, either taking on a project offered by one of the institutions, or developing a proposal of our own. Following that, we put together a detailed project plan for approval by the London NERC DTP Board, before proceeding with our chosen field of research.
It’s been an interesting experience thus far. The cohort now has a better understanding of each others interests, and the breadth of environmental research being undertaken in London. Hopefully this will foster future collaborations and cross-disciplinary research in a city widely recognised as a global centre for science and innovation.