Grants: fewer, larger, for longer

Research councils plan to further concentrate funding on top institutions. Paul Jump reports

January 13, 2011

Research council funding is to be further concentrated on top institutions and outstanding individuals, with additional measures to manage demand in the coming spending period.

The moves were confirmed in the delivery plans released by the councils to coincide with the announcement of the research budget allocations.

The councils have agreed a number of common themes, such as a further focusing of funding on "excellence and capability", recognising that this "might lead to greater research concentration".

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, for instance, expects that more than 90 per cent of its funding will be concentrated in fewer than 30 institutions by the end of the four-year spending period, 2011-12 to 2014-15.

The councils have also agreed to take further measures to limit demand for funding and improve grant application success rates, as well as reduce their own costs in the light of large reductions in their administrative budgets expected to be announced this month.

Initially, they will encourage universities with relatively low success rates to take internal action, but sanctions such as restrictions on the frequency of submission and resubmissions could also be imposed.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has already seen its success rate rise to about 35 per cent after introducing a series of restrictions on applications.

Some of the councils also plan to cut back on the number of funding streams they offer. The Economic and Social Research Council, for instance, will curtail its mid-career fellowships and small grants programmes, replacing them with a "future research leaders" scheme for researchers who completed their PhDs less than six years ago.

Support for outstanding young researchers is another common theme, as is a move towards providing fewer, longer and larger grants focused on individuals rather than projects. The EPSRC says this will "enable the most creative and potentially transformative research to flourish".

However, the councils will balance "the identification of excellent individuals" against "strategic considerations" such as maintaining national capacity and responding to "emerging opportunities".

Each council will focus some of its funding on projects and researchers in a small number of areas they have identified on the basis of national need. The EPSRC says funding for these areas "will be maintained by reducing the breadth and volume of research supported".

The councils will dedicate more funding to cross-council programmes addressing "strategic challenges" such as the ageing population. In addition, they aim to work more coherently with other funders and to recast their investments and facilities as national resources.

The BBSRC, for example, now sees itself as an "investor of public funding" aiming to "to achieve the greatest short-, medium- and long-term returns for society and the economy".

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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