Fewer grants means fight for prize is tougher

Pressure on elite researchers grows as the number of awards declines. Zoë Corbyn reports

September 3, 2009

Academics at top research institutions are finding it increasingly tough to secure research council grants as a result of a fall in the number available, an analysis by Times Higher Education shows.

A league table based on the number of awards institutions secured from six councils reveals that the top 20 scored 14 per cent fewer grants in 2008-09 than in 2007-08.

The table, published in full at www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, is based on the number of awards received from every research council, except the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which had not released full data as Times Higher Education went to press.

The analysis, which excludes institutions that lodged fewer than ten applications, shows that while the 20 institutions securing the most awards retained their share of grants, gaining about 63 per cent of the total, the absolute number of grants they won fell by 315.

The top 20 institutions won 1,933 grants in 2008-09, compared with 2,248 the previous year. The average success rate for the top 20 fell 5 per cent to 25 per cent in 2008-09, from 30 per cent the previous year.

While the University of Cambridge was the most successful of the top 20 in converting applications into awards, its success rate of 32 per cent is significantly lower than the 38 per cent achieved by last year's top-scoring institution, the University of Warwick.

The fall in success rates will be a tough pill to swallow for academics in research-intensive universities, who are under pressure to bring in research funding following the results of the research assessment exercise 2008.

The RAE, the results of which are used to distribute almost £2 billion in research funding each year, saw the share of funds going to the research elite diminish as "pockets of excellence" in post-1992 universities took a greater proportion of the cash available.

The Times Higher Education analysis also shows that University College London pipped the universities of Oxford and Cambridge to the post in the race to win the most research council grants. It is thought to be the first time that neither Cambridge nor Oxford has topped the table.

UCL secured 174 awards from 651 applications in the 2008-09 financial year, compared with the 162 secured by Cambridge and the 153 won by Oxford. The result is particularly remarkable given that UCL has a smaller research staff than its ancient rivals.

It submitted 1,793 researchers in the 2008 RAE, nearly 500 fewer than the 2,246 submitted by Oxford and nearly 250 fewer than the 2,040 submitted by Cambridge.

The result will be a welcome payoff for UCL's academics, who submitted the largest number of applications of any institution, generating a per cent conversion rate.

For the first time the analysis also includes the amount of funding that institutions won. UCL leads, followed by Imperial College London, although the totals do not include funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, which did not provide data on funding amounts.

The results also show that the University of Reading pushed out Cardiff University to enter the top 20 this year.

It joins the universities of Durham and York as the three institutions from outside the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities to make the top 20.

Of all the institutions that lodged more than ten grant applications, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory enjoys the highest success rate, 50 per cent.

London Metropolitan University was the least successful. It lodged 19 applications and won nothing.

Among the more teaching-focused universities, the University of Hertfordshire performed best. It lodged 18 applications and received six awards, giving it a success rate of 33 per cent - higher than Cambridge, although the numbers involved are far smaller.

David Price, vice-provost for research at UCL, said he was "delighted" with the result.

"We have created a number of new interdisciplinary research institutes and that has led to people coming up with lots more ideas," he said.

John Senior, pro vice-chancellor for research at Hertfordshire, said its success paralleled its performance in the RAE and its success in securing European research grants.

He said the university had selectively developed its research in certain areas, focusing strongly on collaborations with industry.

A spokeswoman for London Met said the institution had recently reorganised its research support arrangements to strengthen applications, adding that its position in the success-rate league table did not reflect its strengths in research.

She added that the university had enjoyed significant success in the RAE 2008.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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