The Natural Environment Research Council is to beef up its demand management measures for responsive mode grants after success rates dipped to as low as 11 per cent in its most recent call.
According to Nerc figures, the success rate by number of applications in the research council’s standard grant calls was just 11 per cent in 2014, compared with 13 per cent in 2013 and 20 and 29 per cent in 2012’s two calls. The most recent figure is the lowest since at least 2004.
In 2014, the success rate by amount of funding awarded (as a proportion of amount sought) was also at a historic low of 12 per cent.
The research council asked institutions in 2011 to introduce internal quality control systems for applications for responsive mode grants - which it terms “discovery science”. Limits are also in place on resubmission of proposals and the number of proposals an investigator can submit in one call.
But in its statement announcing the change, Nerc says that “there have been consistent increases since  in both the number of standard grant applications submitted, and in the amount of funding requested per application”.
Its figures show that the number of applications to funding rounds fell from 300 in December 2010 to 222 12 months later. But it then rose again to 310 by July 2013 and 305 by January 2013. The amount sought has risen from £109 million in December 2011 to £161 million in July 2013 and £151 million in January.
The 2006 RCUK efficiency of Peer Review Project report says that success rates below 20 per cent introduce “unacceptable inefficiencies” due to the high cost of preparing and reviewing proposals.
Nerc aims to cut the number of “uncompetitive” proposals given a score of six out of 10 or lower by panels. It is still consulting its advisory board and universities over the details of the new measures, which it will apply from next July, but it aims to ask research organisations to “self-regulate their submissions and concentrate effort on competitive proposals”.
Organisations or departments will be required to meet certain targets by certain dates, and those that do not will be subject to sanctions.
Iain Gillespie, Nerc’s director of science and innovation told Times Higher Education that the research council was currently following the advice of its science boards and “modelling the foreseeable impacts of options for specific sanctions. As part of an on-going process, we will be discussing these with senior representatives of the community”.
Nerc is not the first research council to introduce concrete demand management measures. In 2010 the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council began banning resubmissions and “constraining” repeatedly unsuccessful applicants to one bid in the next 12 months after being singled out.