Research council bucks trend on funding success

The EPSRC's steady rise in grant approval rates continues, but at what cost? Paul Jump reports

September 8, 2011

The success rate for grant applications to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council rose to 36 per cent in 2010-11, its highest point in recent years.

The rise of six percentage points on the previous year, and 10 percentage points on 2008-09, bucks a trend of falling success rates in other research councils. The Economic and Social Research Council announced a record low success rate of 16 per cent in 2010-11, as Times Higher Education reported last week.

The amount of funding distributed by the EPSRC rose by 6 per cent to £488 million, while the number of applications fell by 24 per cent to 2,568.

A spokesman for the EPSRC described the latest success rate figure as "very healthy". He attributed it to the research council's demand-management measures, introduced last April, which limit repeatedly unsuccessful researchers to one application in the following year.

But Ian Walmsley, pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Oxford, said it was an "open question" whether there was a causal link between the measures and the increased success rate.

"Our experience is that the number of applications has gone down across the research councils," he noted.

David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, said his anecdotal experience suggested that the EPSRC's policy had deterred as many strong researchers as weak ones from submitting applications.

"Their very draconian approach to preventing the resubmission, even if significantly revised, of bids has led to people being afraid of submitting good ideas in case they fail to get funding the first time around," he said.

He had told UCL researchers that it could be seen as a "badge of honour" to be "blacklisted" by the EPSRC because it meant they had lots of ideas.

However, researchers still saw it as "a mark against their career development", he added.

Another pro vice-chancellor, who did not want to be named, said that his experience suggested that the EPSRC's demand-management measures appropriately targeted "those who need to be encouraged to think more carefully about what they are doing, rather than believing that luck will eventually favour one of their applications".

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