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Award details

University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

How are deep uncertainties in climate science managed and communicated?. Physical Geography PhD Studentship (NERC GW4+ DTP funded) Ref: 4012

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr James Dyke, University of Exeter, Global Systems Institute

Additional Supervisors

Prof Richard Betts MBE, Met Office

Dr Saffron O’Neill, University of Exeter, Department of Geography

Prof Richard Pancost, University of Bristol, School of Earth Sciences

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon.

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology,  the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,285 p.a. for 2020-21) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
  • Up to £750 for travel and accomodation for compulsory cohort events.

Project details

Project Background

Despite the incredibly high stakes of policy making for climate change, there are still large uncertainties when it comes to understanding how the Earth’s climate and biosphere will respond to increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Even more profound are the uncertainties associated with the consequences such impacts will have on human societies now and far into the future. But projections about how climate change may play out into the future are key to decision making now. In the words of the former Defra Chief Scientist, "people are pouring concrete on the basis of these [climate] projections". Billions of pounds are being committed to climate mitigation and adaptation now, on the basis of projected impacts that may not emerge for many decades, even centuries. What if these over or under estimate future impacts? Are we at risk of omitting vitally important processes in our assessments? How can very rare but potentially catastrophic events be factored into models? Policy makers, industry and society must work with these deep uncertainties. What can we learn from other areas of policy that also necessarily deal with deep uncertainty? And, how can society effectively respond to challenges that are inherently probabilistic? 


Sea surface temperature anomalies from Met Office HadCM model

Melbourne Global climate strike on Sep 20, 2019. Photo: John Englart

Project Aims and Methods

This interdisciplinary project has two main aims. First, it will assess how deep uncertainties involved in the simulation of complex physical and social systems are addressed within existing and proposed future General Circulation Models and Integrated Assessment Models on which national and international climate policy is based. In doing so, it will ask are there effective limits of model complexity when it comes to producing outputs that have relevance to policy and wider society [1]? Second, it will investigate how uncertainty and confidence in climate science is communicated between scientists, decision-makers, and the public [2]. It will explore different methods currently in use, and also alternative methods used in other fields of science. The supervisory team has a unique skill set to support the student through the project. Their expertise spans the academic fields of sustainability science, complex systems simulation, climate science and science communication. All supervisors also have significant experience across the policy, practitioner and media realms. 

The student will work closely with the Met Office Hadley Centre staff involved in UKCP18. This is a state-of-the-art, highly complex climate analysis tool which accounts for uncertainties in (1) future emissions, (2) the translation of emissions into concentration pathways, (3) climate sensitivity, and (4) regional climate responses. These uncertainties are potentially of crucial importance to the effectiveness of decisions in climate policy, especially for adaptation where quantitative information is required to inform long-term planning and implementation of adaptation measures. An initial aim of the project will be to find communication methods which are most effective for enabling decision-makers to act appropriately in the face of the often very large uncertainty in climate projections.  This will be important new knowledge for the Met Office Hadley Centre, the wider climate modelling community and have a beneficial impact on collaborations between science and decision-makers and help further develop the effectiveness of climate modelling in informing societal and policy responses. 
The student will work with the users of climate projections to investigate how they interpret the outputs of climate models and how their understanding of confidence and uncertainty affects their decisions. This will involve working with policy makers, journalists, activists and the public There is significant scope for the student to shape the aims and objective of the project. 


[1] Verburg, P.H., Dearing, J.A., Dyke, J.G., Van Der Leeuw, S., Seitzinger, S., Steffen, W. and Syvitski, J., 2016. Methods and approaches to modelling the Anthropocene. Global Environmental Change, 39, pp.328-340.

[2] Pidgeon, N. and Fischhoff, B., 2011. The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nature climate change, 1(1), pp.35-41 

Candidate requirements

Candidates must either possess a good first degree in a quantitative subject (such as natural and social science or mathematics), or demonstrate an ability to increase their skills in probability and statistics.

CASE partner 

The student will spend time working within the Met Office Hadley Centre alongside climate scientists who are developing climate projections, and with those involved in science communicating with policy making. 


Training will include specialist science communication, and working at the science-policy interface. This will be delivered via the GW4+ DTP and MSc Global Sustainability Solutions programme.  


NERC GW4+ DTP studentships are open to UK and Irish nationals who, if successful in their applications, will receive a full studentship including payment of university tuition fees at the home fees rate.

A limited number of full studentships are also available to international students which are defined as EU (excluding Irish nationals), EEA, Swiss and all other non-UK nationals.  For further details please see the NERC GW4+ website.

Those not meeting the nationality and residency requirements to be treated as a ‘home’ student may apply for a limited number of full studentships for international students. Although international students are usually charged a higher tuition fee rate than ‘home’ students, those international students offered a NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership full studentship starting in 2021 will only be charged the ‘home’ tuition fee rate (which will be covered by the studentship). International applicants need to be aware that you will have to cover the cost of your student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD. More information on this is available from the universities you are applying to (contact details are provided in the project description that you are interested in

The conditions for eligibility of home fees status are complex and you will need to seek advice if you have moved to or from the UK (or Republic of Ireland) within the past 3 years or have applied for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.


Entry requirements

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project


How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current proficiency in English.

Reference information
You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process, however we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the, 7 days prior to the interview dates.  Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is Friday 8 January 2021 2359 GMT .  Interviews will be held between 8th and 19th February 2021.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the lead supervisor.

Data Sharing
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  • the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  • administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:8th January 2021
Value:£15,285 per annum for 2020-21
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries