Manchester leads the cash bonanza

August 24, 2007

Ten heavyweight research establishments net 40 per cent of all grants.

Academics at heavyweight research-led universities continue to dominate the quest for grants from the research councils, an analysis by The Times Higher shows.

Ten universities secured almost 40 per cent of the hundreds of millions of pounds in grants awarded in the 2006-07 financial year. The ten, including Oxford University, Cambridge University and Imperial College London, picked up 1,253 of a total of 3,140 individual research grants handed out to universities by five of the seven research councils. Some smaller institutions were excluded from the round-up.

Researchers at Manchester University top the table compiled by The Times Higher , which is based on the number of awards institutions received from five councils: the Arts and Humanities Research Council; the Economic and Social Research Council; the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; the Natural Environment Research Council; and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils no longer exist, as they merged this year to form the Science and Technology Facilities Council. The Medical Research Council was unable to provide its data.

Academics at Manchester picked up 163 research awards this year, more than any other institution. Manchester was also the most prolific institution in asking for research funding, making 470 applications. Its academics received the greatest number of awards from the AHRC, but also enjoyed success across the science councils.

Manchester's "if you don't ask, you don't get" approach was cultivated at the university, said Sharon Hammond, research development manager in the School of Social Sciences. "We don't see it that if you apply for something and you don't get awarded it it's a failure," she said. "It's all part of the learning process." Most importantly, she said, Manchester had devolved its research administration to a school level since it merged with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 2004. This meant it could "tailor things a lot more to the individual academics".

Chris Perriam, director of research in Manchester's School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures, said that this had been "absolutely crucial" in his school in offering help from the beginning of an application through to arranging internal peer review. "We can go round and knock on people's doors, so we have a lot of personal contact but it's very closely managed," he said.

Manchester has another advantage. "Quite a few of us are peer-review members with the AHRC, so we know what we would like to see," said Professor Perriam.

Cambridge followed closely behind Manchester in the table, with 158 awards and the highest success rate, 42 per cent, of any of the major research universities. It also took in the most awards of any institution from the BBSRC.

The university had "woken up" to the possibilities of research funding, said Ian Leslie, pro vice-chancellor for research.

"Our best people three or four years ago weren't applying," Professor Leslie said, especially in the arts and humanities where there was a stronger culture of independent research. "It's an untapped demand that has come forward," he added.

Of the 141 grants picked up by academics at Imperial College London, 103 came from the EPSRC, while Bristol University did best with both the NERC and the ESRC.

University College London, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Edinburgh were the other universities in the top ten.

Most post-1992 institutions fared poorly with the research councils, although a few had reason to celebrate. The University of the West of England took in the most grants of all the modern universities, receiving 25 awards after making 80 applications.

Plymouth, De Montfort, Brighton and Oxford Brookes were the only other former polytechnics to win ten or more awards. Plymouth had sought 107 grants but received 18.

Some others enjoyed a very high success rate for a small number of applications. University of Central England academics secured seven grants from the ten applications they made to the AHRC, the ESRC and the EPSRC. Three out of Derby's four applications to the AHRC, the only council university members approached for funding, were successful.

Alan Middleton, UCE's director of research, said that "quality over quantity" had worked well for his institution.

"In the past we have submitted more applications to some research councils, with a very poor record, and we decided we needed to do something about the quality," he said. "We don't actually stop people submitting, but we advise people that their proposals aren't ready.

"Over the years I've heard the research councils consistently say that if the proposal is good enough it will get funded," Professor Middleton added. "I still think the system tends to work against the newer universities, but we need to do the best we can."

Each research council listed its awards to institutions slightly differently, making direct comparisons between councils difficult, and the ESRC provided data only for its responsive mode grants.

The AHRC made awards to 34 per cent of its applicants, but competition for their academics got tougher this year. Academics applying to the ESRC had the lowest success rate, with only 28 per cent of funding applications met, slightly up on last year. Scientists also enjoyed similar or better success rates this year, with the NERC success rate increasing from 26 per cent to 29 per cent.

'Having a research grant gives you time off to really focus. It is rejuvenating'

For Sophy Rickett, one of three academics from Derby University to win a research council grant this year, the most anxiety- inducing part of applying to the Arts and Humanities Research Council was opening the response letter.

"You're much more nervous when you get the letter and then you realise that the next six months are at stake," she said.

Ms Rickett, a reader in photography, received a £15,000 grant from the AHRC under the Practice Led Research Grant Scheme for a photography and music installation at Glyndebourne. About £8,000 of the award was to allow Ms Rickett to give up teaching for a semester and work solely on the project.

"It would have been really hard combining it with teaching," she said.

"That was what was so amazing about having the grant - it gave you the time off so you could really focus. It's rejuvenating and ultimately it really feeds back into your teaching practice."

Only four researchers from Derby applied for grants this year, making Ms Rickett's award part of a 75 per cent success rate.

The university had helped her make her application by reading her drafts, giving lots of feedback, working out her financial requirements and, ultimately, giving her time off teaching work.

"It doesn't feel nerve-racking because it's such a long process and it's so thorough," Ms Rickett said.

"It's challenging, and it's taxing in its own way, just because of the timescale involved."

For other applicants, Ms Rickett has some good advice: "It sounds a bit contradictory, but when you're applying they're more interested in the questions that you're asking than the answers you already have."

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