Grant bids see mixed results

August 4, 2006

The latest official figures for success rates for research council grant applications reveal varied fortunes for researchers.

While researchers in some fields have benefited from improved chances of securing project grants, those in other areas are finding it increasingly tough to win funding, according to statistics for 2005, which were released this week.

While more than one in three academics in the arts and humanities is successful in their applications, as few as one in five medical researchers gets the green light.

The figures relate to grants awarded by the eight research councils in 2005 and worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

The proportion of applicants winning grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council was greater than in the preceding year. The AHRC's success rate rose from 35 per cent in 2004 to 37 per cent in 2005, while the BBSRC's success rate for responsive-mode funding rose by one percentage point to 26 per cent.

Tony McEnery, AHRC research director, said he was pleased with the increase, which reinforced "the fact that every year the AHRC continues to receive a large number of high-quality applications for a relatively limited pot of research funding".

Nigel Brown, the BBSRC's science and technology director, said applications had grown by 11 per cent year on year. "This is not an ideal situation as referee workloads have increased. We want to reduce the number of applications being made but also increase their quality," he said.

The BBSRC wants to see universities sift through applications from their academics before they submit them. "University departments should be looking hard at the quality and clarity of the science before applications are submitted. These days, the BBSRC is funding just under half of the international-quality applications we receive," Professor Brown said.

The Economic and Social Research Council's rates remained stable at per cent in 2005. The ESRC said the number of new research grants processed and the number of awards granted had increased to 1,001 applications processed and 2 awards.

But the Medical Research Council's success rate fell to 20 per cent in 2005. Diana Dunstan, MRC research management group director, said: "The overall award rate reflects the level of demand, which continues to be high. It is only a little lower than last year."

The key figure was the award rate of 85 per cent for internationally competitive applications, she said. "We are working with universities to help them to understand the pattern of success for their applications." The council hopes this will reduce overall demand and the burden on peer review.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's success rate fell 1 per cent to 33 per cent in 2005, while the Natural Environment Research Council's rate dropped from 32 per cent to 24 per cent.

Anne MacFarlane, Nerc's research grants manager, said the higher rate in 2004 could be attributable to a capital grants round and more directed programmes, which tend to have higher success rates. "Twenty-four per cent is more realistic across the piece and with our responsive, blue-skies research funding it's what we aspire to. It's certainly not a worry," she said.

The figures for the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Council for the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils differ slightly. Pparc offers little responsive mode funding and CCLRC grants go towards facility development, amounting to £11 million for 18 projects since 2003. These councils are due to merge into the Large Facilities Council in April 2007.

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