Bonanza at the Bull Ring

Birmingham benefits from huge rise in income from research council grants. Paul Jump reports

August 16, 2012

The value of a research-intensive university's research council grants has jumped by just over 80 per cent in the past year in what has been described as an unprecedented success for the institution.

The University of Birmingham was awarded a total of £41 million by the UK research councils between August 2011 and July 2012, compared with £22.7 million in 2010-11.

Figures released by the university also reveal that Birmingham's research income from government departments doubled and awards from overseas organisations and industry trebled during 2011-12 compared with the year before.

Declining income from local authorities and the diversion of health research funding from universities' to hospitals' accounts restricted Birmingham's overall research income rise to 56 per cent, from £93 million to £145 million.

Adam Tickell, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at Birmingham, said he was not aware of any other university that had recorded a similar increase in research income this year.

Last year, the largest rise in the value of research council income awarded to a comparable-sized institution was recorded by Newcastle University (66 per cent).

"In the first half of the year, people just didn't believe the numbers," Professor Tickell said.

But as the year progressed, it became clear that "something substantial [was] really happening".

The research councils have not yet published detailed figures for grant success rates in 2011-12.

Among those that have published an overall figure, the Economic and Social Research Council's success rate by number of applications fell from 16 per cent to 14 per cent, while the Medical Research Council's rose 8 percentage points to 26 per cent.

In 2010-11, the most successful research council applicant - Imperial College London - was awarded £94.5 million, and Professor Tickell admitted that Birmingham's £22.7 million in 2010-11 was a "fairly low base" for improvement.

He said that part of Birmingham's progression was accounted for by its success in winning some "very big grants" and in recruiting academics who already had their own funding. But the "most encouraging" sign was that more Birmingham academics were winning research council grants.

This had been helped by devolving the work of the university's grant support staff to its five schools, which had helped them "understand the differences" between disciplines and to "add value" to the internal scrutiny to which Birmingham subjects all its grant applications.

Another factor in Birmingham's success, Professor Tickell said, was its push for greater collaboration, both internally and with external partners. This had promoted the kind of interdisciplinary grant applications the research councils encourage - although Professor Tickell denied that this had been the primary motivation.

Birmingham was also making strides to facilitate greater collaboration with other universities, he said. This included its newly announced regional alliance, known as the M5 group, with the universities of Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick.

Professor Tickell was "hopeful and positive" that Birmingham's income from European and industrial sources would continue to grow. As for research council income, "if we maintain and grow our market share, I'll be pleased because the funding environment is going to get very, very hostile".

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