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Environmental and Social Ecology of Human Infectious Diseases (ESEI) specification

Please note this opportunity is now CLOSED.
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  • Status: Closed
  • Open date: 8 Jun 2013
  • Closing date: 13 Sep 2013 16:00 GMT+1
  • Type: Grants, MRC strategic

This call is now closed for applications and is only available for reference purposes.

A joint initiative between the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) as part of the Living With Environmental Change programme. Up to £10m is available to fund high quality proposals.

Our world is changing at an unprecedented rate resulting in changing patterns of infectious diseases. As recently exemplified by H1N1(Mex), the emergence of a pandemic strain of influenza or other virulent pathogen remains an ongoing threat to human health. As identified by the Foresight Detection and Identification of Infectious Diseases (DIID) Project, we need to respond to the threat from new and emerging pathogens so that we are better able to anticipate, prepare for, and control future outbreaks.

This ground-breaking initiative aims to establish novel inter-disciplinary approaches to studying the ecology of infectious diseases. The ESRC, MRC, NERC, and BBSRC recognise that important new insights into the drivers and control of infectious diseases in human populations can only be achieved by taking a holistic systems approach which takes into account the ways in which the natural and social environments affect the emergence (emergence, re-emergence, and development of drug resistance) and spread of infectious disease. This new paradigm will enable us to respond proactively to the threat from novel pathogens and emerging infections. Since most emerging infections are zoonotic, we are particularly keen to better understand the animal reservoir as a source of infectious diseases and how animal pathogens spill-over into human populations and spread through communities in the UK or other parts of the world.

This initiative is launched under the umbrella of the Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership ( and is a partial contribution to the LWEC strategic objective on protecting human, plant and animal health from diseases, pests and environmental hazards.


Infectious Disease threat from a rapidly changing world – mitigating against the next pandemic

The vision for this initiative is the establishment of truly interdisciplinary teams of researchers, conducting high quality state-of-the-art innovative research, addressing national/international research priorities that will inform and impact on policy and practice. The intention is to foster the development of a new paradigm, transcending discipline boundaries, and to build capability in this important area of research. The goal is to fund research that is broad and inter-disciplinary in nature, aimed at pathogens that are considered a significant threat to public health now or in the future. The aim would be to establish a balanced portfolio within this initiative, not dominated by any one particular pathogen.

This initiative also aligns with the concept of ‘one medicine’, which seeks to link medical and veterinary science by drawing on a common pool of knowledge between the two sectors in order to exploit the potential of animal disease research to provide insights into human health.

The Research Councils recognise that the establishment of truly interdisciplinary teams of researchers and the development of state-of-the-art collaborative research proposals in this area are challenging. Therefore this will be a phased and interactive initiative, with support for preparation:

Workshop – aims to facilitate interaction between researchers from different backgrounds

Phase I – Catalyst Grants – funds to enable the development of new interdisciplinary partnerships and development of research ideas.

Phase II – Research Consortia Grants - aims to fund interdisciplinary teams of researchers conducting high quality innovative interdisciplinary research, that would not usually be supported through existing funding schemes.

Below we specify the principles that Research Consortia would be expected to fulfil. These principles are not expected to necessarily be achieved by all applicants from the outset, in Phase I of the initiative, but are the desired goals to aim for by the submission of final Research Consortia proposals. To this end, catalyst grants are an important formative element.

Principles of Research Consortia

It is expected that Research Consortia funded through this initiative would meet the following principles:

  1. The research will be interdisciplinary, encompassing and integrating Environmental Sciences, Health Sciences, Social Sciences, and Biological Sciences approaches.
  2. The research will address either a currently important Public Health problem, or demonstrably applicable to a potential future Public Health threat.
  3. Proposals addressing the systems giving rise to zoonotic infections and their drivers into human populations are particularly encouraged.
  4. Surveillance, human to human transmission and ‘model’ pathogens are not priority areas for this initiative, but with sufficient justification, may be included in proposals taking a holistic systems approach

Illustrative research topics

Research Consortia are expected to be innovative, break the mould of current thinking, and integrate Environmental, Social, Biological and Health Sciences. The following examples are intended to give a flavour of the type of research topics, methodologies and categories of pathogens that could be included in Research Consortia. They are intended to be illustrative, not prescriptive or exclusive, nor are they in order of preference. These also do not attempt to provide examples of fully integrated interdisciplinary approaches.

Environmental reservoirs and routes of transmission for microbial pathogens

The environment will play a critical role in the emergence of zoonotic pathogens and the impact of selection in polluted sites may have a dramatic effect by increasing the rate at which such pathogens emerge. Bacteria from diverse sources such as hospital, sewage and animal wastes can become mixed and enter natural habitats through a variety of routes. The subsequent gene pool is exposed to the selective effects of pollutants such as heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and bulk chemicals which can offer unprecedented opportunities for horizontal gene transfer. A number of drug-resistant pathogens may have developed in this way and preliminary studies are now proving that gene transfer can be enhanced by stress factors such as the presence of pollutants. What are the major environmental and social risk factors for this mixing and how should we reduce the risk in future?

Rodent-borne zoonoses in a Developing Country city

Most new and emerging diseases occur in developing countries and a high proportion of these infections are zoonoses and rodent-borne, such as haemorrhagic fever viruses. Such infections can spread rapidly in highly populated areas and there is a great risk of infections spreading to other urban areas in different parts of the world. A case study may provide valuable insights into the dynamics of infection. What pathogens are being carried by rodents in this setting? How and when do pathogens spread within rodent populations from the hinterland to urban areas? How close is the match between patterns of infection and exposure between hinterland rodents, urban rodents and humans? What are the effects of settlement structures, how people live, their proximity to each other and levels of poverty on the dynamics of infection? What are the risk factors, especially the cultural and socio-economic risk factors, for rodent infections amongst the human community and how do rodent infections spread within human communities?

Faecal-oral zoonoses and food safety in the UK

Faecal-oral zoonoses frequently occur as high-profile outbreaks of food poisoning in the UK. They represent the single most important group of UK zoonoses, including regular fatalities. Understanding how outbreaks occur would be of public health importance and could emerge from a study of a high risk rural community. What occupations and life styles are risk factors for pathogen carriage? How does human behaviour affect pathogen carriage and how could behaviour best be modified to reduce the risk? Where are the pathogens in the environment? Are they in domesticated animals or wildlife or their environs? Do they move through different compartments (e.g. soil, water, air, host)? This study could consider a ‘community’ of infections, including but not limited to verotoxic E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter, monitored to determine rates of current infection but also, if possible, exposure.

Vector-borne diseases

Many new and emerging infections are vector-borne e.g. West Nile virus, Chikungunya virus etc. However, relatively little is known about the ecology of these pathogens and their vectors in the tropics and how, when and where they spill-over into human populations. Environmental change will lead to vegetation change, and also changes in water quality and quantity, affecting vector habitats. Remote-sensing data and climate-landscape models can be used to predict patterns of future change, and the potential consequences for vector populations. What will be the next emerging pathogen transmitted by vectors? How will environmental change affect the controls on vector populations and risk of vector-borne diseases acquired from animals? Do certain human cultural practises and individual behaviours such as responses to public health advice, health seeking behaviour and responses to controls of disease spread in agricultural systems, increase the likelihood of transmission and if so, can these risks be mitigated? What are the consequences of human settlement and farming practices on vector-bourne infections? What are the impacts of globalisation and mobility e.g. through rapid air travel and mass tourism, on the spread of pathogens?

The human element in infectious disease epidemiology

A better appreciation of human behaviour and how it influences the risk of infection and the passage of pathogens between individuals is fundamentally important for understanding how zoonotic infections emerge and spread within communities. What are the interactions between humans and other animals that increase risk of infection? How, psychologically do people react to infectious disease outbreaks of different forms (e.g. vCJD versus Avian/Swine Influenza)? What is the economic impact of a zoonotic illness on trade, the agricultural and food industry, or the health service? What are the consequences of modern farming practices on zoonotic infections? How is the public understanding of risk and behaviour produced, circulated and reproduced in the public sphere? What role does information, and form in which the information is communicated (e.g. through traditional and new media sources), play in the development of a disease outbreak? What can phylogeography of pathogens on a global scale tell us about the role of people in spreading disease and how it evolves as an epidemic? What new insights could be gained by linking phylogeographies to models of human demography and land-use change?

Passage of airborne infections into and within human communities

The emergence of a pandemic strain of influenza or other virulent airborne pathogen is a threat to human health and livestock agriculture. Pandemics arise when human-transmissible airborne pathogens transfer from animals and this is frequently preceded by genetic reassortment. Such pathogens circulate in wild and domestic animals, though their population structure outside humans is still poorly understood. How might modern phylogenetics combined with field and theoretical epidemiology help understand the distribution, maintenance and abundance of wild pathogens? How might this knowledge be translated into effective public health and agricultural biosecurity measures? How might modern network theory as well as considerations of the physical spread of airborne pathogens in the environment help in pandemic planning? Although it is widely recognised that the properties of the pathogen, the physical environment and the patterns of animal and human contact are crucial to how that pathogen spreads and its impact, the importance and nature of each of these may vary in different parts of the world. Climate, density of human and animal populations, cultural differences, public health infrastructure and resources are all involved in the evolution of epidemics, but the relative contribution of each may differ. How much is transmission of respiratory pathogens affected by environmental factors and global change? Is it the same for all airborne pathogens and what is the effect of climate change on transmission of respiratory pathogens? What are the cultural attitudes to infections which affect the spread and control of these infections? How do different models of public health systems influence infectious disease transmission? How is infectious disease transmission influenced by changes in population structure and the spatial distribution of populations including the ways people mix within society, urbanization and migration, household size, travel and social activities? An integrated approach around one or two exemplar respiratory pathogens, which allowed modelling of the interactions between pathogen biology through to the individual behaviour in influencing spread of a pandemic pathogen would allow fine tuning of plans for pandemic control.

Modelling zoonotic infections

Mathematical models that capture the dynamics of infectious diseases are vital tools for preventing and controlling future disease outbreaks, and could be an integral component of a research proposal. Here we are suggesting the development of models that consider how natural and social factors affect the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans, and how the infection spreads through communities. Such modelling may be at a global, regional or local level or operate at a range of spatial scales. What information do we need to develop models that can help inform the control of zoonotic infections? How can multiple models from different disciplinary backgrounds be effectively integrated?

Available funds and types of awards

This will be a managed initiative. Funds will be available through two consecutive and linked modes of support.

Catalyst Grants (Phase I)

Catalyst Grants are aimed at enabling researchers to develop realistic and relevant research partnerships (networks) and research strategies with the potential for significant national/international impact. These grants will allow researchers to build partnerships and to develop proposals. Catalyst Grants are not intended to support research projects, but may support some preliminary research activity.

At the catalyst grant stage good interdisciplinary research ideas are more important than having whole interdisciplinary groups in place, or even identified. At the catalyst grant stage applicants are eligible to submit proposals that do not have all interdisciplinary collaborations in place at the outset, provided that applicants demonstrate how they will address this. Furthermore applicants would receive feedback guidance on their proposals, which could include recommendations to join up with other research groups.

It is anticipated that Catalyst Grant holders would go on to apply for Research Consortia Grant funding, or submit applications for other research grant funding. Application for a Catalyst Grant is a pre-requisite to be eligible to apply for Research Consortia Grants in Phase II of this initiative, because of the intention to provide a strategic steer to applicants at

It is anticipated that around 10 Catalyst Grants will be awarded in this call. As a condition of funding, applicants must be able to commence activities within one month of an award offer. Up to a further 6 applicants may be invited to submit an application for Research Consortia Grants without being awarded a catalyst grant, if there is sufficient potential for high quality proposals in the Research Consortia round.

Applicants can request up to £50k (80% FEC) for a maximum period of 9 months.

For further details see Catalyst Grant guidance and evaluation notes.

Research Consortia Grants (Phase II)

ESEI Research Consortia Grants will support high quality innovative research conducted by inter-disciplinary teams of researchers. Research Consortia will add value by contributing to the overall strategic aims of the ESEI initiative and addressing key research challenges within the specific priority areas highlighted in the call.

Research Consortia will be truly inter-disciplinary and will involve strategic partnerships with other sectors such as practitioners, policy makers, industry and the public, as appropriate. In addition to carrying out high quality research, Research Consortia will build research capability and capacity by attracting existing expertise into the area.

Funds in the region of £10 million (80 per cent FEC) will be available over a five year period, subject to quality. It is anticipated that up to five Research Consortia Grant awards will be made in this call.

Eligibility for application for a Research Consortia Grant is restricted to researchers that either (a) held a Catalyst Grant, or (b) were invited to apply for a Research Consortia Grant even though their application for a catalyst Grant was not funded.

This Phase of the initiative will take place soon after expiry of the catalyst grants – further details will be provided at the appropriate time.

Launch and networking workshop

A one day interactive workshop will be held in London on 9th October, to both launch the initiative, and to facilitate developing contacts and building inter-disciplinary, and cross-sector collaborations for potential participation in this call. Expressions of interest will be invited ahead of the launch workshop to further facilitate developing contacts. For more information, see ESEI launch workshop details.


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