Small fry can win, but big fare best

August 24, 2007

Top research grant winners claim aggressive applications policy pays off. Louise Radnofsky reports

A small group of modern universities is overcoming the odds to win research grants with the same success rate as the research elite, a Times Higher analysis of more than 10,000 grant applications has found.

But the figures confirm that, in general, academics at the former polytechnics continue to be left behind in the competition for cash from the research councils.

The University of Central England, Sunderland, Roehampton, De Montfort universities and the University of the West of England were among the post 1992 institutions whose success rates in obtaining grants were similar to or better than those of many of the traditional research-intensive universities, although they made far fewer bids.

Overall, academics at modern universities secured just 7 per cent of the 3,140 awards made by five research councils in 2006-07, and ten former polytechnics failed to succeed in a grant application.

Tactics for obtaining grants varied. Some institutions managed to secure grants by making a small number of well-targeted applications, while a few aggressively pursued grants even if many of their applications were unsuccessful.

Manchester University obtained more grants than any other institution in The Times Higher 's league table, with 163. It beat Cambridge University, with 158 grants, and Oxford University, with 1, but it made more applications and had a lower success rate than Oxbridge.

UWE, the top-ranked modern university in the table, made 80 applications and won 25 awards - a 31 per cent success rate, on a par with Birmingham and Southampton universities, although these research-intensive institutions both made many more applications. Success rates across the five councils ranged from 28 per cent to 34 per cent.

By contrast, Plymouth University secured the second-highest number of awards among new universities, 18, with 107 applications.

"We advise people not to be demoralised after two or three attempts if they're unsuccessful. That's par for the course," said Martin Quinn, Plymouth's deputy director of research. "People need to learn the research funding game - that you have to go for quality but you have to be persistent as well."

Vice-chancellors of modern universities said that they suffered a "vicious circle", as they lacked the research infrastructure to make high-quality grant applications to research councils.

"I'm sure [the research councils] are both fair and unbiased," said Michael Driscoll, Middlesex vice-chancellor and the chair of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities. "The real unfairness is the excessive concentration of research funding in a few institutions."

A lack of funding for research infrastructure from the research assessment exercise meant that staff lacked experience in making applications and lacked administrative support in preparing their bids, he said. "To make an application for a research grant is not a trivial thing," said Professor Driscoll. "It's not something you do on a Friday afternoon before going home for the weekend."

Alf Game, deputy director of the science and technology group of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said that he would warn an academic beginning a life sciences career "that they would be handicapping themselves if they tried to do it outside of a research-intensive environment". Despite the obstacles, modern universities remained committed to research, said Les Ebdon, the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire University.

"Research is an integral part of being a university," he said.

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