The competition for research council grants is becoming increasingly tough, with many more applicants vying for only a slightly greater number of awards than last year, data compiled by Times Higher Education show.
The figures, which cover six research councils, show a 13 per cent rise in the number of applications for research funding in the 2007-08 financial year compared with the previous year.
A total of 12,707 grant applications were lodged, 1,478 more than the previous year, and 3,547 bids secured funding, 118 more than last year. The overall success rate for grants fell from 30.5 per cent to 28 per cent.
The chance of securing funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, traditionally the council with the highest success rate, fell from 34 per cent in 2006-07 to 23 per cent in 2007-08. Researchers applying to the AHRC now have less chance of securing a research grant than those who apply to any other research council.
Comparisons with 2006-07 data show the AHRC received an extra 178 applications in 2007-08 but gave out 153 fewer grants.
The next biggest drop in success rates was at the Economic and Social Research Council where the chance of converting an application into a grant was 28 per cent in 2006-07 compared with 24 per cent in 2007-08.
Success rates also dropped slightly at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (down from 32 per cent in 2006-07 to 30 per cent in 2007-08), the Natural Environment Research Council (down from 29 per cent to 28 per cent) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (down from 30 per cent to 29 per cent).
The Medical Research Council was the only council to buck the trend. The success rate rose from 24 per cent in 2006-07 to per cent in 2007-08.
Speaking on behalf of Research Councils UK, the councils' umbrella group, Gerald Owenson, head of grants at the BBSRC, said that the high numbers of applications were a concern because it meant extra work for reviewers and applicants.
He said the councils were encouraging institutions to set up internal peer-review processes to ensure only the best applications went forward. They were also developing a scheme to make success-rate information more readily available to enable institutions to compare performance.
"What we don't want to do is say 'you have had three unsuccessful applications therefore you are not allowed to submit any for another year'," he said.
The respective swings in success rate loosely mirrored the outcome of last year's budget settlement, which saw the MRC do well and the AHRC do poorly. Although the latest success-rate figures covered an earlier period, councils needed to plan ahead to manage their expenditure, Dr Owenson said.
He added that some councils were making grants larger and longer, which would affect the number of awards available.
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