Grant application success rates at four research councils have fallen despite efforts to manage demand.
The success rate for curiosity-driven funding, often dubbed “responsive mode”, has fallen by 14 percentage points in 2013-14 at one research council, and by eight at another, according to data from the organisations’ annual reports.
Success rates have been climbing in recent years, largely thanks to research council demand management activities. Most research councils now require universities to vet applications to weed out the poorest before submission.
But an analysis by Times Higher Education of the 2013-14 annual reports from four of the seven research councils shows that responsive mode success rates have fallen after at least three years of successive increases at the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council. At the Economic and Social Research Council, success rates have slipped after peaking in 2012-13, and those at the Medical Research Council have fallen for the second consecutive year.
All four research councils have offered various explanations for the pattern, and one has said that it will be working with universities on demand management.
Of the four, the AHRC reported the biggest fall. For 2013-14, the success rate was 33 per cent, down from 47 per cent in 2012-13.
AHRC responsive mode funding includes fellowships and networking funds as well as research grants. The success rates for responsive mode standard research grants fell from 35 per cent in 2012-13 to 30 per cent in 2013-14.
Mark Llewellyn, director of research at the AHRC, said that the overall drop was because of reductions in the success rates for fellowships and networking schemes. “The drop in success rates for research grants is marginal and within the normal range for year-on-year fluctuation,” he said. He added that the AHRC has no plans to introduce more demand management activities in the coming year.
At Nerc, the success rate for its discovery science grants (responsive mode) fell from 26.4 per cent in 2012-13 to 18.4 per cent in 2013-14.
It attributed the decline to an increase in the number of proposals, a rise in the amount of funding requested and “supplementary funding” being available for some discovery science schemes in 2012-13.
Nerc added that it was “actively considering” steps to help return success rates to “our stated target of 20 per cent”, including working “increasingly closely with research organisations to manage demand”.
Paul Palmer, director of research in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh, said that the Nerc drop was “very disappointing” and noted a 10 per cent cut since 2012-13 in the pot of money available for discovery science. “Decreasing blue skies research funding will ultimately damage UK economic growth,” he said.
The success rate for responsive mode grant funding at the ESRC has also dropped. It now stands at 25 per cent, down from per cent a year ago. The ESRC said that an increase in application volume and size, a tighter budget and the funding of larger grants have contributed to the fall. It called on institutions to take a “proactive role in demand managing their submission levels”.
The MRC reported the smallest drop in responsive mode funding of the four. The success rate for funding from its research boards for 2013-14 was 19 per cent, down from 20 per cent in 2012-13. Anne Dixon, head of science funding and operations at the MRC, pointed to the amount of funds available falling “for the first time in five years”.