The Economic and Social Research Council is “discussing ways of enhancing performance” with universities submitting high volumes of weak grant applications after its overall success rate plummeted to just 13 per cent.
The 2014-15 figure for open call grants, revealed in the ESRC’s annual report on 6 July, compares with 25 per cent in 2013-14. Applications rose by a quarter to 420, while the amount of money awarded fell by a third, to £24 million. The average size of the 53 grants awarded rose from £443,000 to £451,000.
The ESRC’s three biggest subjects in terms of applications – psychology, sociology and economics – had success rates of 15, 8 and 10 per cent respectively. Some major institutions, such as the universities of Sheffield and Southampton, secured no funding at all, and University College London’s 15 applications – the most for any institution – only yielded one grant.
In the annual report, the ESRC notes that application volume remains half of what it was before it began asking institutions to internally screen their applications in 2011, and the proportion of “fundable” applications has risen from 13 to 42 per cent in that time. But demand in some schemes is “rapidly increasing”, and “very poor quality applications” still make up a quarter of the total. The ESRC is “discussing ways of enhancing performance with those [institutions] where application volume is high and quality is relatively weak".
However, it made similar comments last year, when success rates began to fall again, and observers Times Higher Education spoke to expected the downward trend to continue, despite the recent raising of the lower threshold for standard grants from £200,000 to £350,000. This is because academics are being put under enormous pressure to secure more grant income; THE recently revealed that grant income targets for individuals are implemented in some form at about one in six UK universities.
Martyn Hammersley, emeritus professor of educational and social research at the Open University, said that grant income was effectively “given much more emphasis than the value of the research proposed or how well it is carried out, despite all the rhetoric about excellence”.
“It is an extremely wasteful system [that] would be hard to justify even if there were an effective selection process in which only the best work was funded. However, I doubt very much whether it even approximates to that ideal,” he said.
John Holmwood, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, said that it did not look to him as if any institutions were “putting in an excessive amount of applications”, and another senior source at a research-intensive institution said that changing the rules on submission “won’t have any real impact on the core problem: too many [institutions] chasing limited funds, where each [institution] has an incredibly strong incentive to show that it is performing well in terms of research funding received”.
The 2006 Research Councils UK Efficiency and Effectiveness of Peer Review Project report says that success rates below 20 per cent introduce “unacceptable inefficiencies”. Earlier this month, the Medical Research Council revealed that its success rate dropped from 26 per cent in 2013-14 to 23 per cent in 2014-15. The success rate in the most recent European Research Council funding call was just 8 per cent.
The research councils are the subject of a government-commissioned review led by Sir Paul Nurse, due to report in the autumn.