ESRC Study Tour: 9th April 2010

Last week I made an epic 7 and a half hour journey from Lincoln to Swindon for the Economic and Social Research Council‘s (ESRC) “study tour”, which was organised in conjunction with ARMA (Association of Research Managers and Administrators). Despite the transatlantic travel time, I picked up a few tips and pointers which should be useful in informing future ESRC bidding strategy and applications.

The “study tour” was in fact a series of presentations by senior staff in the ESRC on their grant schemes, international funding opportunities, Je-S and finance updates, and the ongoing development of the Shared Service Centre (SSC) which will provide a unified back office for all seven research councils. I’ve summarised several of the main points below, but do get in touch if you would like to discuss any of these in more detail.

Responsive mode

Michelle Dodson, Head of Research Grants Policy and Development at ESRC, started with an overview of the current ESRC responsive grant schemes. Responsive schemes are the mainstay of the ESRC’s research funding: open all year round, you can apply for funding at any time for any area of research within the ESRC’s remit. Michelle presented a “ladder of funding” for research from studentships to centre grants. Note that despite the ESRC move to the SSC later in the year, their responsive scheme will be open all year, but some of their directed/strategic calls may be delayed around the time of the move (September 2010).

Bidding tips

Among the tips presented was the usual advice to plan the content and structure of the proposal, discuss your bid with your academic peers, and approach your nominated referee before submission. Michelle also noted that the ESRC prefer academics to contact them before they start preparing the bid to ensure it is within their remit.

Another slightly more unusual piece of advice was to avoid footnotes or endnotes where possible in the Je-S form and the Case for Support attachment. Apparently one of the most frequent complaints to ESRC from peer reviewers is about referring to footnotes.

Details matter!

It’s important to check that the headings in your Case for Support correspond to those asked for in the guidance notes. Also make sure that your font is the right size (no smaller than size 12), and that the attachments have the right size margins and are with page or word limits. These may seem like trivial details, but you run the risk of having the application returned for amendments, or even rejected outright if there are excessive formatting errors. The ESRC are going to be increasingly looking to universities to ensure that these details are correct before submission – they indicated that there may be harsher penalties for those whose applications are missing key details.

Scoring and success rates

The scoring system for reviewed applications is being changed from A+, A, A-, Beta, Reject to A1 – A5, Beta, Reject. Only A1 and A2 rated bids are likely to be discussed for funding at panel. This is essentially a change in presentation, but it is being carried out across research councils as part of their harmonisation of assessment processes linked to the move to the SSC.

Success rates may also change. Currently, ESRC standard grants have a 12-20% chance of success and small grants have a 30-35% chance. Michelle indicated that ESRC are looking to harmonise success rates and so will likely be increasing funding for standard grants and reducing it for small grants to bring these figures into line with each other. This may mean a 20-25% success rate across all schemes, but this should be treated with caution as we don’t know what impact the announcement of this change will have on bidding activity.

On a more positive note, Michelle made the point that ESRC are categorically not considering an EPSRC-style move to “blacklist” researchers with low success rates (you can read more about that here and here).

International opportunities

Many of the international schemes mentioned in this ESRC brief are either about to close or have already closed, but it’s worth drawing attention to them anyway. The bilateral agreements with Austria, Brazil, and Hong Kong were mentioned (a bilateral call with Finland is currently closed but about to be relaunched), but greater emphasis was given to the Open Research Area, a collaboration between the ESRC and French, German, and Netherlands research funding organisations. This call is about to close (13th April), but Audrey Sharpe of ESRC’s International Team indicated it would be open again for another round next year.

It’s worth noting that international co-investigators can be included within an application to the standard ESRC grants scheme – 100% of their costs will be paid by ESRC, but the total costs of international partners must come to no more than 30% of the total bid cost. It goes without saying that inclusion of international partners within any bid must be fully justified within the bid text, particularly the Case for Support and Justification of Resources.

Another interesting opportunity on the horizon is the ESRC’s support for FP7 applications. This will fund travel and networking costs to form a consortium for an FP7 bid and is likely to be an annual call, released in the autumn. There were relatively few details about this at the event, but Stephen Struthers (stephen[dot]struthers[at] is the main ESRC contact for this scheme.

Je-S updates

There’s a major Je-S redesign coming this month, which the ESRC Je-S representative touched on, but there will be another blog post dedicated to that. It’s essentially a navigation change which will allow users to see at a glance which sections of the form still need to be completed. It will also allow you to jump between sections without navigating to a separate document menu.

Shared Service Centre

All Research Councils from this year will be moving towards a shared services model, meaning that certain functions, such as a helpdesk and financial grant management, will be performed by a single office, rather than individually for each council. ESRC’s Finance function migrated to the SSC in November last year so they are starting to run grant payments through the SSC. Their pre-award grants service will be moving to the SSC September 2010.


Michelle made clear that the ESRC strategy is about impact overall, i.e. academic, user, economic, social impact as a whole. In addition she mentioned that ESRC are looking for “pathways towards impact”, rather than impacts themselves. In other words, they recognise that in a short research project it may not be possible to directly influence government policy or bring about major social change, but applicants should specify how they may get there. Often one-off workshops or dissemination events aren’t enough: impact is seen as more valuable when a researcher has an ongoing relationship with non-academic groups.

Research/scientific excellence was emphasised as the key criterion informing funding decisions. Impact, it was said, is used in “borderline cases”, i.e. where two applications have a similar level of research merit and adventure, but where one is clearly stronger than the other in terms of its non-academic and societal impacts then that may be funded as a matter of priority.

Financial issues

Finally, Brian Hooper, Head of Finance and Awards Management at ESRC, presented a round up of financial and miscellaneous issues:

  • Co-investigators will be accepted from non-eligible organisations, e.g. companies, charities, etc.
  • But there may be a (lower) limit to co-investigator time and numbers – this is currently under discussion, but the idea is to prevent bids with 12 co-investigators, each spending an half an hour per week on a project. The rationale behind this is that this is seen as insufficient time to give any meaningful academic input to a research project.
  • In the Justification of Resources document, PCs and laptops for staff already employed by an institution need to be very carefully justified. Generally the ESRC expect the institution to provide these resources apart from exceptional cases.
  • If you’re travelling overseas consider not only the costs of the travel, but also insurance cover which can be expensive depending on the country visited.

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