Environmental Risks and Big Data @nclceser @cranfielduni @Cambridge_Uni @unibirmingham @NERCscience @gregclarkmp

A consortium of four leading UK universities, including Newcastle, has been awarded £2.5m to train the next generation of researchers to become experts at assessing and mitigating environmental risk using Big Data.

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the aim of the new Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) is to produce researchers who can use large or complex datasets to understand and ease the risks posed by a range of societal and environmental changes, such as a rapidly expanding population, limited natural resources, and natural hazards.

Experts at Newcastle University, along with colleagues from Cranfield, Birmingham and Cambridge universities will lead the new DREAM (Data, Risk and Environmental Analytical Methods) consortium, supporting 30 PhD students to develop the key skills needed in these emerging fields.

Newcastle’s involvement is led by CESER academics Dr Stuart Barr and Professor Chris Kilsby in the School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences.

Dr Barr, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University, explains: “As our ability to monitor the Earth’s processes improves – collecting data from a wide range of sources from satellite observations through to ‘crowd sourcing’ – it is imperative that modern environmental scientists are able to analyse and use this data to its full potential.

“The aim is to train the next generation of risk specialists who will be able to seize the opportunities of ‘big data’ analytics to improve our understanding of environmental risk mitigation options for industry, businesses, government and society.”

As identified by the recent BIS data strategy – Seizing the Data Opportunity – the UK has some of the best universities and institutes in the world, some truly innovative small businesses, and some of the richest historic datasets of any country.

This means there is potential to produce a new generation of risk scientists able to maximise the opportunities big data offers, filling a skills shortage in this area. The CDT is a direct response to this shortage.

Minister for Universities, Science & Cities, Greg Clark, said: “In this fast-moving, digital world, the ability to handle and analyse large volumes of complex data is vital for the UK to maintain its competitive edge.  That is why the government identified Big Data as one of our 8 Great Technologies and central to our Industrial Strategy.

“This £2.5 million investment to train the next generation of Big Data experts will enable a skilled workforce to develop innovative tools to assess and mitigate risk that will help business, government and wider society cope effectively with big environmental and societal changes.”

Professor Duncan Wingham, chief executive of NERC, said: “We are becoming increasingly in need of a sophisticated understanding of changes, such as highly interdependent economies, a fast expanding and ageing population and climate change, that affect all of our lives. Decision makers in business, government and wider society need to understand these risks so that they can develop the most appropriate strategies to respond to them.”

“NERC’s new Centre for Doctoral Training will equip tomorrow’s researchers with the skills necessary to maximise the opportunities big data offers to develop risk analysis, contributing to this important area of the economy.”

Funding for ten studentships will be awarded each year. The CDT award will provide funding for three years of new student intake – 30 studentships in total – from 2015 to 2016. Two of the studentships in the 2016 cohort will be interdisciplinary and co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and NERC.

Students will gain advanced technical skills, be regularly brought together as a cohort to share ideas and skills, and have the opportunity to take part in partner-based secondments.

CDTs support strategically-targeted, focused PhD studentships aimed at addressing specific research and skills gaps identified by NERC and our partners.

In a related project, NERC recently launched a £5m strategic innovation initiative, called Environmental Risks to Infrastructure Innovation Programme (ERIIP), to help protect some of Britain’s most important national infrastructure from environmental hazards. The programme will give decision-makers in areas such as energy, transport and water improved access to NERC’s world-class environmental science.

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