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Grant application success rates, 2012

Research councils benefit from external and internal pressures. Paul Jump reports

The research councils’ efforts to limit demand for research grants appear to be working, with success rates improving in 2011-12 despite a significant fall in the amount of funding allocated.

The overall research council success rate by number of applications stood at 30 per cent in 2011-12, up from 27 per cent the previous year and 23 per cent in 2008-09.

Of the six research councils that distribute project grants, the success rates at four have risen. Only at the Economic and Social Research Council - which purely publishes data for responsive mode grants - did the rate fall, from 16 to 14 per cent, despite a 12 per cent decrease in applications and an 8 per cent increase in the amount of funding allocated.

However, a spokeswoman for the ESRC said that since the research council had begun requiring institutions from June 2011 to internally sift applications before submitting them, it had recorded an overall success rate of 24 per cent, rising to 33 per cent for its most recent round of responsive mode grants.

She said that application volumes had also dropped by 37 per cent, “which is an encouraging start towards our demand management target of a 50 per cent reduction” by the end of 2014-15.

Overall, applications to the research councils fell by 9 per cent in 2011-12. This figure would have been larger - 15 per cent - if the comparison were not skewed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s 10-week closure to applicants in 2010-11 while it transferred to the Shared Services Centre.

Meanwhile, excluding the AHRC, the research councils allocated 11 per cent less funding in 2011-12. The largest drop - 23 per cent - was recorded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Despite this, the EPSRC’s success rate rose by six percentage points to 42 per cent - the highest of all the research councils - thanks to a 25 per cent decline in applications.

In 2010, the council introduced a uniquely strict demand management policy under which resubmissions were banned and repeatedly unsuccessful applicants were “constrained” for a 12-month “cooling off” period. An average of 36 people were “constrained” in 2011-12, with around 100 deemed to be close to the threshold.

Applications to the EPSRC have declined from 4,335 in 2008-09 to 1,933 in 2011-12. However, a spokesman for the council said that it expected levels in 2012-13 to top 4,000 again because of an increased number of calls for applications and a peak in funding available this year.

Luke Georghiou, vice-president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester, said he was “pretty sure” that applications had declined owing to researchers’ “perceptions of demand management”.

“In management terms we are able to meet [Research Councils UK] targets on volume through rigorous quality control of applications,” he said.

“However, even well-qualified individuals, particularly in EPSRC-funded areas, were also perhaps overcautious until they understood the extent of sanctions.”

Ian Walmsley, pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Oxford, said his institution had submitted fewer and less valuable research council applications recently.

But he added that there had been so many recent changes to research council funding programmes as a result of their declining real-terms budgets that it was not possible to attribute falling application numbers to demand management alone.

“Perhaps the main aspect that I discern is that colleagues feel increasingly disengaged from councils that are heavy-handed on [demand management],” he said.

Oxford had responded to the changes by seeking to diversify its research income: “As one example, the European Commission is now our third-largest funder. A couple of years ago it was about 10 places further down the list.”

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

Measures of success: less money, fewer applications but more on target
Council2008-092009-102010-112011-12% change since 2010-11
 ApplicationsAmount (m)% success rateApplicationsAmount (m)% success rateApplicationsAmount (m)% success rateApplicationsAmount (m)% success rateApplicationsAmount (m)% success rate
AHRC1,82739181,513321653426351,0334540+93+73+14
ESRC1,252Not known191,332371788425167762714-12+8-13
MRC2,325275221,475181191,865250181,72527524-8+10+33
BBSRC2,033206211,865178221,804186281,46016530-19-11+7
Nerc1,68583241,887103242,052112241,8909524-8-15-
EPSRC4,335548263,379459302,566488361,93337742-25-23+17
TOTAL13,4571,1512311,451990249,7051,087278,81798430-9-9+11
Notes: success rate is percentage by number of applications; all amounts in millions; ESRC figures responsive mode only; totals exclude non-UK and non-academic institutions
Source: UK research councils. Analysis by %3Cem%3ETimes Higher Education%3C/em%3E

• For the full figures, see related file, right.

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