Grant awards send message to think big

Fall in number of research fund applications sees rise in proportion of winners. Paul Jump reports

November 24, 2011

The proportion of grant applications to the UK research councils that won funding rose by 4 percentage points last year, despite a 2 per cent decline in the number of awards.

According to Times Higher Education's annual analysis of research council figures, the overall success rate by number for applications to all the research councils (excluding the Science and Technology Facilities Council) was per cent in the 2010-11 financial year. This compares with 23 per cent in both 2009-10 and 2008-09.

The figure resulted from a 15 per cent fall in the number of applications.

Total funding awarded also increased by 10 per cent, despite the fall in the number of awards.

The highest success rate for institutions that made more than 20 applications was the 51 per cent achieved by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's John Innes Centre in Norwich. Among universities, the most successful significant applicant was the University of Southampton, which was awarded £41 million at a success rate of 34 per cent.

The most grants and the most money - £94.5 million - were won by Imperial College London, at a success rate of 32 per cent. The institution also put in the highest number of applications.

The value of the awards won by the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities rose by 11 per cent, taking its share of the £1.1 billion distributed in 2010-11 to 69 per cent, compared with 68 per cent in 2009-10.

Some Russell Group members saw large increases in the amount of funding they won; the University of Sheffield and Newcastle University saw the value of their awards rise by 63 and 66 per cent, respectively. The latter's success rate also rose from 21 to 29 per cent.

Nick Wright, pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Newcastle, said that there was always some natural fluctuation in the figures, but the university had implemented a policy of encouraging staff to apply for fewer but bigger grants, which chimed with developments in research council policy.

"We have encouraged people to be a bit more ambitious and think a bit bigger," he said. "There is sometimes a tendency in smaller universities for people to think: 'We can't quite do that here.'"

The only Russell Group members to record significant falls in the value of their awards were the universities of Manchester and Liverpool, which recorded drops of 20 and 32 per cent, respectively.

However, both increased their success rate, with Liverpool's shooting up from 18 to per cent, reflecting a large fall in its applications.

A Liverpool spokeswoman said that despite the drop this year, the university had seen a 24 per cent rise in the total value of its grant awards in the most recent three-year period compared with the previous one.

The biggest percentage increase in the value of awards among universities submitting more than 20 applications was for Heriot-Watt, the value of whose awards rose by 91 per cent and whose success rate rose from 22 to 30 per cent.

Alan Miller, deputy principal for research and knowledge transfer at Heriot-Watt, said the success reflected the "high importance" the institution placed "on the development of our researchers in interdisciplinary areas with economic impact and benefits to society as a whole".

The University of Leicester also fared well, seeing the value of its awards rise by 82 per cent.

Kevin Schürer, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise, said this reflected a number of "carrots and sticks" that the institution had introduced, such as departmental income targets, financial rewards for successful departments and a "greater emphasis" placed on how grant application success relates to career progression and promotion.

But the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, of which Leicester is a member, saw the value of its awards decline by 7 per cent, taking its share of the total awarded down to 13 per cent.

Among the group's biggest losers were the universities of Surrey and Durham, the value of whose awards fell by 45 and 41 per cent, respectively. Both said the fall was balanced by a significant increase in funding from the European Union.

* Comprises University College London, Imperial College London, University of Manchester, University of Edinburgh, University of Oxford and University of Cambridge. † Excludes research council institutes and non-higher education institutions.

Winning streak: councils that played their grant cards right

The disparity between the grant application success rates of different research councils has widened, with two councils recording rates of more than one in three, but another languishing at just over one in six.

According to Times Higher Education's annual analysis of research council figures, the Arts and Humanities Research Council saw its grant success rate figure rise from 16 per cent in the 2009-10 financial year to 35 per cent in 2010-11.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, meanwhile, saw its success rate hit 36 per cent, up from 30 per cent in 2009-10 and 26 per cent in 2008-09 (see table, below).

The EPSRC attributed this improvement to its controversial system of demand management, which restricts repeatedly unsuccessful applicants to submitting one application in the following year.

The AHRC has not introduced such measures, although, in common with all research councils, it is working with institutions to ensure that they submit only "high-quality" applications. An AHRC spokesman suggested that the rise was an anomaly caused by the introduction of rolling deadlines for applications and the closure of the AHRC's application system for 10 weeks while it was moved to the research councils' Shared Services Centre.

The effect of the closure is also reflected in the number of applications to the AHRC, which tumbled from 1,513 in 2009-10 to just 534 in 2010-11. But the total amount the AHRC gave out, excluding fellowships, only fell from £31.8 million to £25.7 million.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council also saw its success rate improve significantly, from 22 per cent in 2009-10 to 28 per cent in 2010-11.

By contrast, the Economic and Social Research Council's success rate declined by 1 percentage point to a new low of 16 per cent.

The ESRC recently announced that it would introduce sanctions on serially unsuccessful applicants next autumn if existing efforts to manage demand were not effective.

Kevin Schürer, pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at the University of Leicester, said the danger of such measures was that they could prevent institutions without a good track record from improving their positions.

He also worried that they could "stifle" early-career researchers, for whom failure was part of learning how to submit good applications.

Professor Schürer said the councils could learn from the way journals with high rejection rates sift out many applications in-house before sending them out for peer review.

But he admitted that such a solution would be acceptable to the research community only "if the filtering process is accountable".

Nick Wright, pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation at Newcastle University, agreed that robust reviewing was crucial, "otherwise people think it is a lottery and the way to increase your chances is to buy more tickets". He was also "quite supportive" of the EPSRC's demand-management scheme.

"But we would question whether the same methodology would translate well to other councils and we would not want them to rush into demand management without taking time to consult academics on the methodology," he added.

% success rate by number of awards

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