Research Council Success Rates: A Balancing Act

This week Research Fortnight published an interesting story on UK Research Council success rates [login required].

The picture is diverse: from a low of 16% for the ESRC to the giddy heights of 39% for the AHRC. We’ve discussed previously on this blog the Research Councils’ plans for both demand management and concentration in research funding as part of their 4 year delivery plans. The latest data reveals that the Councils are starting from very different places in their drive to increase success rates and manage demand for their funding.

I’ve summarised the success rate information in the table below along with links to the publicly available information published by the Research Councils:

Research Council Success Rates 2010/11 (Number) Success Rates 2010/11 (Value)
AHRC 39% 33%
BBSRC 22% (predicted) 23% (predicted)
EPSRC 36% 36%
ESRC 16% Unavailable
MRC 18% 22%
NERC 24% Unavailable
STFC 52% (in 09/10) 25% (in 09/10)

The surprise result has been AHRC which saw a leap in success rates from 17% in 09/10 to 39% in 10/11. This increase may be partly due to the fact that the AHRC shut for a month earlier this year, which followed disruption earlier in 2010 for Research Grants, Fellowships and Networking schemes. Despite the success rate increase, AHRC – in line with other Research Councils – are considering demand management sanctions such as restrictions on frequency of submissions by repeatedly unsuccessful applicants and institutional quotas.

Success rates for applications to the ESRC, by contrast, are still languishing in the mid-teens and the Council knows it needs to take action to improve the situation. It is starting by talking tough to institutions and asking them to self-regulate applications, as they did for the recent Future Research Leaders scheme. However, if this doesn’t work there are various options currently on the table for individual or institutional sanctions, including charging for applications or a temporary ban on anyone who submits two failed applications within 24 months which fail to get an alpha grade. If adopted, these would be considerably tougher than EPSRC’s sanctions, but the ESRC say this would be necessary because the profile of applicants is different to the EPSRC’s.

EPSRC meanwhile is fairly pleased with itself: having introduced initially controversial demand management measures in 2010, it has seen success rates climb to a healthy 36% by number and value in 2010/11. In fact, Research Fortnight recently reported that it is softening its sanctions slightly: rejected proposals considered “out of remit” will no longer count towards unsuccessful totals and applications which make it through to second round or interview stages will no longer be considered to be in the “bottom half” of the ranking list, no matter how low they actually rank.

What is clear is that it’s a balancing act for Research Councils (besides EPSRC) still considering which demand management measures to adopt. Institutional sanctions or quotas are pretty unpopular among most HEIs because they mean some researchers will inevitably be punished for others’ poor performance. Individual sanctions, although still unpopular, are generally regarded as a better option by universities, but some Councils (such as the ESRC) are not convinced they will work to reduce demand. More unconventional suggestions, such as the ESRC’s proposal to charge per application, will be difficult to support when researchers already offer time free of charge to review on behalf of the ESRC and anyway, as Adam Goldberg suggests, this may already be a non-starter for the ESRC.

Whichever way they jump, it will likely mean more work for research managers and administrators in universities. Writing in Research Fortnight this week, the editors argue that rather than pushing the burden for demand management onto HEIs, Research Councils should instead demand extra funding from the government to cover the cost of more in-house filtering. While it is arguably the case that Research Councils need more funding to cope with increased demand, I think there are clear benefits for institutions to be more proactive about internal peer reviews for example. It leads to improved quality bids and can help develop bid writing skills.