Our doctoral students are as diverse as the ECI itself, and conduct their research across the world. We have students carrying out primary data collection on the functioning of forest ecosystems in pristine rainforests in remote Amazonia; developing frameworks for climate change adaptation costings in farming communities in Kenya; alongside projects in the UK, Europe, Asia as well as those undertaking theoretical desk-based studies here in Oxford.


Doctoral topics for 2018

The following projects are proposed DPhil opportunities within the ECI. Please contact individual supervisors for more information and to check whether the projects are still available. Funding opportunities for each DPhil are specific to the project and will be outlined in the descriptions below.

Enquiries about these projects should be directed to the named supervisor below.

Managing water resources inevitably involves trade-offs between human and environmental needs for water. In recent years significant steps have been taken to limit unsustainable water withdrawals in England that are potentially harming the natural environment. This has been based upon assessments of environmental water requirements. In practice the sensitivity of the aquatic environment to altered flow regimes is not fully understood. We know that water bodies in a healthy condition are more able to recover from occasional shocks like droughts. However, knowledge of the resilience of aquatic ecosystems is limited. There have been many studies of restoration projects, but the evidence base is difficult to generalize. Evidence of ecosystem response to droughts is bound to take a long time to acquire because these are rare events. In the meantime, decisions have to be made about the management of water resources. There may be more opportunities for enhancing ecosystems, for example through constructed wetlands, which may also contribute to the resilience of water supplies for human consumption. Given our ignorance about the potential effectiveness of these schemes, the approach needs to be one of ‘adaptive management’ – of piloting schemes and embedding learning from monitoring programmes in future cycles of decision making.

We have done extensive research on the risk and resilience of water resource systems1,2,3. We now wish to extend that analysis to incorporate ecosystem resilience. The approach will be to develop and test by simulating an adaptive management approach. The research will involve identifying a range of possible ecosystem restoration interventions and assembling evidence on their hydrological performance and ecosystem response. In the context of a case study catchment (possibly a lowland groundwater dominated chalk stream) we will propose a sequence of possible ecosystems interventions and explore their potential effect on the resilience of water supplies for human and ecological purposes. We will simulate how learning from system response could be incorporated in future cycles of decision making. This will help to make the case for catchment restoration schemes and the monitoring programmes with which they will need to be accompanied.

The project will involve a combination of catchment modelling and decision analysis4. It will suit students from any quantified background, including engineering, economics, physical and environmental sciences. Students should be able to demonstrate aptitude for computer modelling and enthusiasm to address real-world problems of great policy significance.

This project is advertised as part of Oxford University’s Doctoral Training Partnership in Environmental Research, so UK and EU applicants will be eligible for full or part funding. Overseas applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process.

References

There is growing concern about the resilience of water supplies in Britain in the context of climate change and increasing population in some parts of the country. These risks have been studied in Water UK’s National Water Resources Long-Term Planning Framework study and in the National Infrastructure Commission’s recent study on water scarcity. The water group in the Environmental Change Institute made significant contributions to both of these studies. In the first of these studies a unique national water resource systems model was developed using the WATHNET system. The model represents all of the main water users in England and Wales. It is driven by a unique event set of simulated droughts (Guillod et al., 2018). The WATHNET model is combined with multi-objective optimisation, to enable searching and selection of investments and policies to improve the resilience of water supplies in the face of future uncertainties (Borgomeo et al., 2016). This model now provides a powerful platform for exploring a range of questions about the resilience of Britain’s water supplies in the face of uncertain future conditions, and for assessing the potential effectiveness and trade-offs associated with alternative policies and investments, such as water storage, water transfers and water reuse. These possible decisions will be explored using methods for decision and robustness analysis (Borgomeo et al. 2018). The research is likely to result in new insights into the conditions in which severe water shortages might occur in Britain and the associated scientific uncertainties. It will go on to evaluate possible responses to enhance the resilience of water supplies for a range of different users, including public water supplies, farmers and industrial users of water.

The project will involve a combination of water resource systems modelling, hydrology of climate change and decision analysis. It will suit students from any quantified background, including engineering, economics, physical and environmental sciences. Students should be able to demonstrate aptitude for computer modelling and enthusiasm to address real-world problems of great policy significance.

This project is advertised as part of Oxford University’s Doctoral Training Partnership in Environmental Research, so UK and EU applicants will be eligible for full or part funding. Overseas applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process.

References

There is extensive experience of providing drinking water infrastructure (tube well, pond sand filters) for communities in the coastal zone in Bangladesh (Flanagan et al., 2012). There is also growing interest in whether more centralised piped systems might help to improve water quality, helping to address severe problems with arsenic and saline contamination. One of the lessons that has been learnt is that different systems perform well in different circumstances.

Thanks to the work of the REACH project, we have growing understanding of the spatial heterogeneity in Polder 29 in Bangladesh, including GIS of population of 59,000 people, a household survey and audit of water supply infrastructure. That provides evidence to develop methodology for prioritising water supply interventions in a way which is tuned to local conditions.

This project will use a combination of GIS and optimisation (in terms of cost-effectiveness with respect to multiple criteria) to propose a methodology for prioritising drinking water infrastructure interventions. It will demonstrate how a strategic investment strategy could achieve the water supply targets in SDG6 for Polder 29. We will then seek to generalise the method to a scalable methodology that can be applied extensively in Bangladesh.

The project will involve statistical analysis of survey data and application of methods for spatial optimisation. The derived solutions need to take account of local economic and governance conditions, so the student should also study these important contextual issues. Thus the student should have a strong quantified background (e.g. engineering, economics, physics, geostatistics) but should also have a good appreciation of the wider societal context of water supply.

Candidates for this project from an engineering of physical sciences background would be eligible to apply for funding from Oxford University’s EPSRC Doctoral Training Partnership. Successful UK and EU applicants will be eligible for full or part funding. Overseas applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process.

References

Critical infrastructure systems form the backbone of modern society, facilitating the distribution of goods and services across broad spatial extents, transcending the boarders of regions and countries. The increasingly global nature of these networks and complex interdependencies that have emerged between them have created a number of systemic vulnerabilities, creating a situation where local failures can result in cascades of disruption, resulting in far reaching and large scale losses.

One important example of this is port infrastructure which, besides being an infrastructure hub itself, is also a location in which multiple global infrastructure systems converge. This includes energy, transportation and digital communications network systems and a variety of traded commodities that support other critical infrastructures including water supply and waste water treatment systems. The vulnerability of ports and its interconnected infrastructure have been highlighted numerous times in the past years, including through the 2011 Thailand floods and the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. With the installation of new infrastructure that is required to satisfy an ever increasing and consuming global population and a climate system that is changing, this vulnerability is only set to increase into the future. Despite their importance, the vulnerability of, and solutions for building resilience in, interdependent global infrastructure networks, remains poorly understood.

The aim of this research project is twofold: (i) to develop a deeper understanding of the current and future vulnerabilities of global infrastructure networks, with a focus upon major ports, and (ii) to develop and test (through simulation modelling) a range of possible interventions that could reduce infrastructure network.

One approach to addressing these challenges would be to develop a nested network model, which combines global representation of supply chains and transport networks, and then nests more detailed modelling of the vulnerability of specific ports within that global framework. The first step of the study would therefore be to develop a state-of-the-art methodological framework to map and integrate the interdependent critical infrastructures at an international scale. This will require using and adapting a combination of methodologies from engineering systems, reliability theory, network science and risk analysis. It will also require making use of the latest global infrastructure databases and, where necessary, development of innovative methodologies to augment existing datasets from a variety of sources (e.g. satellite imagery, crowd sourced datasets). The developed framework will allow identification of vulnerable points in global networks due to failure of critical infrastructure systems converging in ports. This will provide an important platform to estimate present and future impacts on these global networks and to develop measures for improving their resilience. The outcomes will be at the cutting edge of international global risk and resilience research and will also be of interest to businesses and government including risk managers in high-level multilateral organizations, such as the OECD and the World Bank, as well as port authorities and national governments.

It will suit students from any quantified background, including engineering, physics, mathematics, or another quantitative science subject. Students should be able to demonstrate aptitude for computer modelling and enthusiasm to address real-world problems of great policy significance. Experience of high level programming (e.g. Python), GIS and geospatial databases is desirable.

Candidates for this project from an engineering of physical sciences background would be eligible to apply for funding from Oxford University’s EPSRC Doctoral Training Partnership. Successful UK and EU applicants will be eligible for full or part funding. Overseas applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process.

References

The Eastern Nile river basin (including Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt) is an extraordinarily important transnational river which is undergoing very significant changes, above all because of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) which will dramatically change the hydrological conditions experienced by the downstream riparian countries. The effects of constructing the GERD have been extensively studied in the University of Oxford by Wheeler et al. (2016 and in review). This important work has explored the potential effects of hydrological variability on hydropower production at the GERD and downstream water availability. It has made rather simple assumptions about the needs for electric power supplies in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries to which Ethiopia may be connected with electricity transmission networks.

Meanwhile, a transformation is taking place in energy supply in Africa and the Middle East, with the widespread uptake of renewable energy supplies. Recent auctions for renewable energy supply have demonstrated rapidly reducing costs. This means that the role of hydropower potentially needs to be reconsidered, from one of providing a reasonably steady power supply to a flexible backup mechanism to complement renewable supplies. The proliferation of renewables is changing the geography of energy supply and meaning that there may be potential for new transnational agreements for managing the energy-water nexus.

This project will start with the existing studies by Wheeler et al. using the Eastern Nile RiverWare model. Scenarios and a model of renewable energy uptake and tranmission infrastructure will be developed for East Africa and the Middle East. Trade-offs between the various actors in these neighbouring countries will be modelled, to identify the most beneficial arrangements for energy supply and management of the GERD and the Aswan High Dam.

The project will involve water resource systems modelling, energy supply systems modelling, economic modelling of water and energy demand and possibly also of energy (and water) markets. It will suit students from any quantified background, including engineering, economics, physical and environmental sciences. Students should be able to demonstrate aptitude for computer modelling and enthusiasm to address real-world problems of great policy significance.

Candidates for this project from an engineering of physical sciences background would be eligible to apply for funding from Oxford University’s EPSRC Doctoral Training Partnership. Successful UK and EU applicants will be eligible for full or part funding. Overseas applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process.

References

  • Wheeler, K.G., Basheer, M., Mekonnen, Z.T., Eltoum, S.O., Mersha, A., Abdo, G.M., Zagona, E.A., Hall, J.W. and Dadson, S.J. Cooperative Filling Approaches for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Water International, 41(4) (2016): 611-634. DOI:10.1080/02508060.2016.1177698
  • Wheeler, K.G., Simpson, M., Borgomeo, E. and Hall, J.W. A multi-site non-parametric method for hydrologic scenario generation in the Eastern Nile Basin, Water Resources Research, in review.
  • Wheeler, K.G. Hall, J.W., Abdo, G., Dadson, S.J., Kasprzyk, J.R., Smith, R., Zagona, E.A., Exploring Cooperative Transboundary River Management Strategies for the Eastern Nile Basin, Water Resources Research, in review.

Transport infrastructure serves important economic purposes by enabling trade in goods and services and mobility of workers. The interplay between transport connectivity and regional economic development has been a longstanding topic in economic geography, which has been studied empirically and modelled in a variety of different ways.

There is now rapidly improving capability to study connectivity in transport networks and the flows of goods and people on those networks. Over the last year we have done studies of transport networks in Tanzania and Vietnam at a scale of spatial resolution which could not have been conceived of a few years ago. We have developed methodology to model trade flows and realistically allocate those flows to the transport network. Much of this work has been done in support of studies of network risk and resilience, but it potentially enables much more general insights into patterns of trade and location of pinch-points on the transport network which can be used to prioritise investments in improved connectivity. This then raises the question of how improved connectivity might feed back into patterns of economic activity, which we will explore with economic geography and growth models. Prioritisation of transport connectivity should also take into account other objectives and constraints e.g. providing access to services for people and in opening up areas for natural resource (over-) exploitation. These questions will be explored as part of the DPhil.

The research will be applied and tested in the context of developing economies, possibly in Africa, Asia or Latin America.

This project will suit students from any quantified background, including economics, engineering, physics, mathematics, or another quantitative science subject. Students should be able to demonstrate aptitude for computer modelling and enthusiasm to address real-world problems of great policy significance. Experience of high level programming (e.g. Python), GIS and geospatial databases is desirable.

Candidates for this project from an engineering of physical sciences background would be eligible to apply for funding from Oxford University’s EPSRC Doctoral Training Partnership. Successful UK and EU applicants will be eligible for full or part funding. Overseas applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process.

References

  • Masahisa Fujita, Paul Krugman and Anthony J. Venables, The Spatial Economy: Cities, Regions, and International Trade. MIT Press.

The relationship between infrastructure provision and regional economic activity is only partially understood. Infrastructure serves multiple purposes, as a factor of production, providing access to markets and enabling agglomeration and innovation. Because of the complexity of these processes, the empirical evidence of the effects is often inconclusive. Theoretically, the relationship has been addressed through the frameworks of New Economic Geography, input-output modelling and spatial computable general equilibrium models. Each of these approaches has their limitations as well as their strengths1. An alternative approach is provided by agent-based modelling, which provides the possibility to represent a richer set of interactions between infrastructure systems and human behaviour, but is challenging in terms of data requirements for parameterisation and validation.

The University of Oxford leads the UK Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC), which is a world-leading interdisciplinary programme developing new models and tools to support long term analysis and decision making for national infrastructure. As part of the second phase of the ITRC programme (called MISTRAL) the Institute for New Economic Thinking in Oxford is developing and agent-based model of the interaction between infrastructure and the economy, extending a previous model of the UK housing market. That model development is led by Prof Doyne Farmer. It is an ambitious project which is opening up new insights and modelling possibilities, which this doctoral project is intended to explore. The research will result in new theoretical, empirical and applied insights regarding the interplay between infrastructure and the economy. That will help to inform the long term planning of infrastructure and investment in infrastructure projects.

The doctoral student will become a member of the ITRC-MISTRAL research team, so will benefit from a vibrant research environment and exceptional links with government and business.

The project will involve computer model development, along with parameterization and validation using empirical data. Candidates must therefore be ready to take on a highly interdisciplinary analysis and modelling task. It will require a candidate with advanced computational and mathematical skills, coming from an engineering, economics or physical sciences background. Students should be able to demonstrate aptitude for computer modelling and enthusiasm to address real-world problems of great policy significance.

Candidates for this project from an engineering of physical sciences background would be eligible to apply for funding from Oxford University’s EPSRC Doctoral Training Partnership. Successful UK and EU applicants will be eligible for full or part funding. Overseas applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process.

References

  • Venables, A., Laird, J. & Overman, H. Transport investment and economic performance: Implications for project appraisal. (Department for Transport, 2014).
  • Hall, J.W., Tran, M., Hickford, A.J. and Nicholls, R.J. The Future of National Infrastructure: A System of Systems Approach, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

With the growth of investment in wind and solar energy, there is a rapid increase in the amount of variable renewable electricity resources connected to electricity grids around the world. Whilst this is being adequately managed in most jurisdictions at present, there are clearly increasing problems and these can be expected to grow as and when variable resource become the dominant source of electricity. Integration problems are likely to be seen in various parts of the power system: declining marginal generation costs affecting prices in wholesale markets; issues in designing capacity incentives to accommodate variable resources appropriately; problems in maintaining the supply/demand balance in real time system operation; and increased variation in power flows in grids.

In principle, the storage of electricity in batteries and other devices can help address all of these problems. Rapid reductions in battery costs are making this an increasingly viable option. Whilst there are large programmes of research on battery technology, there has been less work on how public policy and market design might address energy storage. In particular, the potential for multiple benefits of storage cuts across some of the traditional regimes of electricity policy (e.g. wholesale markets, balancing and grid).

The research will involve reviewing ongoing work to support, incentivise and regulate energy storage in jurisdictions with high levels of variable renewable energy, in order to understand existing policy approaches and identify ways forward as the need for storage grows. It is expected that there will be a particular emphasis on understanding the interaction of policies designed to allow or incentivise storage in different parts of the electricity system. The research has potential to inform electricity market design and energy policy in a wide range of countries.

The research is highly interdisciplinary, so will require a student with aptitude for and commitment to interdisciplinary research. The student should be numerate and be willing to learn and apply new skills in fields as disparate as technology assessment, regulatory economics and electrical engineering. It is expected that (s)he will undertake primary research with industry and policy makers in more than one country. The Environmental Change Institute is engaged in a number of related research programmes. These include the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy. The student will affiliated to this programme and will have access to the range of broader research, e.g. on innovation, storage technology and demand response, being undertaken within it.

Applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Explore possible funding opportunities. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process are available at www.geog.ox.ac.uk/graduate/apply/.

With the growth of investment distributed electricity generation, the number of potential sellers of electricity to final consumers is hugely increased. This is potentially highly destabilising for electricity markets. In most jurisdictions at present, the majority of the electricity that is generated sold in wholesale markets to ‘suppliers’ or ‘retailers’ who then sell the electricity to final users in electricity markets. ‘Self-supply’ of electricity generated on site is widely allowed, but there are general regulatory barriers to selling electricity on a small scale, either to neighbouring properties or, via the grid, to a wider market. These relate in part to the structures of the market designed for large scale generation, but also to the (generally accepted) need to protect electricity users, especially vulnerable customers. However, there are now widespread demand, and some real examples, of ‘peer to peer’ electricity sales.

The research will address questions related to the changes to electricity markets implied by more widespread ‘peer to peer’ sales. It will involve reviewing existing and planned business models; and interrogation of the market design and regulatory measures that encourage or discourage this practice. It is likely that this will involve research in more than one country. It is expected that there will be a particular emphasis on the policies required to allow commercial innovation whilst retaining acceptable levels of consumer protection, and therefore that the research has potential to inform energy policy.

The research is highly interdisciplinary, so will require a student with aptitude for and commitment to interdisciplinary research. The student should be numerate and be willing to learn and apply new skills in fields as disparate as technology assessment, regulatory economics and electrical engineering. It is expected that (s)he will undertake primary research with industry and policy makers in more than one country. The Environmental Change Institute is engaged in a number of related research programmes. These include the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy. The student will affiliated to this programme and will have access to the range of broader research, e.g. on innovation, storage technology and demand response, being undertaken within it.

Applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Explore possible funding opportunities. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process are available at www.geog.ox.ac.uk/graduate/apply/.

With the move towards ‘smart’ energy systems, little attention is paid to how intelligible they are to the people who live with them as citizens, consumers, operators and designers. This research will develop the concept of intelligible energy in relation to the distribution of knowledge, practical skills and know-how in the built environment, organisations and/or transport systems. Which human and non-human actors are needed to make a ‘smart’ energy service function effectively, and how do they interact? What skills, old and new, are required? How are problems conceptualised and resolved? The aim will be to contribute to a theoretical understanding of intelligibility as a property of energy systems, informed by empirical work on how intelligibility can influence energy outcomes and system development.

The research will require a student with aptitude for and commitment to interdisciplinary work – for example, willing to learn from and interact with other researchers in fields as disparate as technology assessment, design, sociology, learning theory and power engineering. (S)he may undertake primary research with industry and policy makers in more than one country. The Environmental Change Institute is engaged in a number of related research programmes. These include the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy. The student will be affiliated to this programme and have access to a range of research through it, e.g. on innovation, storage technology and demand response.

Applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process are available at www.geog.ox.ac.uk/graduate/apply/.

Electricity supply and demand have to be managed at substation level as well as on the high-voltage transmission grid. Increases in distributed generation, along with changing patterns of demand, create new challenges for distribution network operators, for example when there are ‘clusters’ of solar PV arrays, heat pumps or electric vehicles. Research into the potential for demand response and storage to address such challenges tends to concentrate on specific sectors – residential, commercial, industrial or non-profit/governmental. But demand relates to particular activities and functions, some of which are more flexible than others, and there may well be a mix of activities from different sectors or subsectors in a locality that can be exploited or developed to assist with network management.

The research will require a student with aptitude for and commitment to interdisciplinary work – for example, willing to learn from and interact with other researchers in fields as disparate as technology assessment, design, sociology, learning theory and power engineering. (S)he may undertake primary research with industry and policy makers in more than one country. The Environmental Change Institute is engaged in a number of related research programmes. These include the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy. The student will be affiliated to this programme and have access to a range of research through it, e.g. on innovation, storage technology and demand response.

Applicants in need of financial support are encouraged to apply for one of Oxford’s several doctoral scholarship schemes for UK or overseas students. Explore possible funding opportunities. Closing dates apply on these schemes and students are encouraged to apply early. Applications are made through the School of Geography and the Environment: Full details on the applications process are available at www.geog.ox.ac.uk/graduate/apply/.

Examples of current research

Scott Thacker

Reducing the risks associated with infrastructure system failures due to extreme climatic events.

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Abrar Chaudhury

Resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems to climate change.

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Chase Sova

A systematic framework for integrated climate change adaptation.

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Funding

Our students receive an impressive rate of funding through scholarships and bursaries from wide sources, including research councils, consulates and increasingly from industry. This rise in industry finance is a reflection of the applied nature and relevance of the subjects selected for supervision.

In 2013 we were selected to form part of the new NERC and ESRC Doctoral Training Programmes, offering new students the opportunity to pursue a comprehensive and fully funded doctoral training experience.

For details of the NERC Scholarships please see the Oxford Doctoral Training Partnership.

For details of the ESRC Scholarships please see the Oxford Doctoral Training Centre.

ECI doctoral students may also be eligible for funding from the EPSRC Doctoral Training Partnership award to Oxford

Further information is available on the Research Councils UK website.

You can explore Oxford University's fees, funding and scholarship search for more information.


Finding a supervisor

DPhil students are required to identify primary and secondary supervisors. If you wish to work with an ECI researcher you should contact them directly to discuss your proposed topic. The following ECI staff are available as primary DPhil supervisors:

Many members of the School of Geography and the Environment's academic staff have environmental interests and may co-supervise with staff of ECI if they are interested in the project and are not already oversubscribed in terms of supervision.

A modest number of doctoral research positions and fellowships are associated with ECI research projects and in a few cases these may be accommodated within ECI research space.