UK research grant success rate falls in return to long-term trend

Rising value of grants suggests that winning funding is likely to remain highly competitive

November 15, 2018
Source: Getty

Academics’ chances of winning grants from UK research councils fell last year, as funders supported fewer, more expensive scholarly projects.

Data provided to Times Higher Education by six research councils show that 25.8 per cent of open-call funding applications were approved in 2017-18, down from 27 per cent the previous year.

This represents a return to the longer-term trend of declining success rates: 2016-17 was the first rise in success rates in five years, up 1 percentage point on the previous year.

The total value of grants awarded in 2017-18 was also down, from £1.29 billion to £1.18 billion, a drop of 8.6 per cent.

The decline in the number of grants awarded was much greater – 1,793 bids were successful, down 24.4 per cent from 2,371 in 2016-17 – indicating that the average value of funded projects was increasing.

The number of applications fell too, from 8,373 to 6,959, a decline of 16.9 per cent.

Graph: funding from research councils

Alex Hulkes, strategic lead for the insights team at the Economic and Social Research Council, predicted that the growing cost of research projects indicated that success rates would continue to fall.

“Grant sizes are naturally tending to increase,” he explained, “Partly because we are seeing some schemes with larger grants awarded but also because costs of a grant are going up, even when accounting for inflation, and I don’t think people’s application behaviour is going to change very much.”

Universities may also be more accurately costing up research proposals, he added, “and that is reflected in that they are asking for more money. When you factor that in, if you have the same number of grants but they cost more to do the same amount, inevitably that’s creating pressure in the system.”

Much of the year-on-year changes can be attributed to annual fluctuations in grant call and bidding activity. But some individual research councils reported particularly large swings in activity.

At the Arts and Humanities Research Council, for example, the success rate fell by 9 percentage points, to 17.4 per cent. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council reported a 5.4 percentage point drop, to 28.6 per cent, and the Natural Environment Research Council said that its success rate fell by 4 percentage points, to 28.2 per cent.

Other councils, however, reported increases in success rates. While the ESRC still has the lowest success rate, of 16.8 per cent, this was up 3 percentage points year-on-year.

The amount of funding allocated by some councils also shifted significantly: the value of Nerc grants declined by 35.8 per cent, to £99.6 million, and the AHRC reported a 30 per cent drop, to £26.3 million.

Strategic funds such as the Global Challenges Research Fund were also said to have provided new opportunities in 2016-17, and some speculated that researchers had jostled to get their proposals in before Brexit.

But other councils, including the EPSRC and the ESRC, handed out more money compared with last year.

Ned Garnett, Nerc’s associate director of research, said that this year’s data reflected the fact that the council “had a smaller number of calls than average and many of those calls were tightly defined, meaning we did not receive as many applications”.

Edward Harcourt, director of research, strategy and innovation at the AHRC, said that its lower success rate “reflects a number of factors including a slightly higher average award value, a slight increase in the number of applications received, and the impact of reductions to AHRC’s core budget following the last spending review”.

Some sector observers were struck by the decline in application numbers. Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, said that one possible explanation was “demand management”, whereby more internal screening of proposals allowed only the most competitive applicants to submit.

“That’s getting more common, I think, because institutions don’t want lots of people from [the same university] all chasing a very scarce grant”.

“[An alternative], depressing, option is that there’s a Brexit effect,” Professor Bishop added. “Even if they have not left yet, our European Union colleagues may be disinclined to submit grant proposals in this period of uncertainty. And finally, could it just be austerity kicking in?”

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Reader's comments (3)

Hi Rachel, Previously, the annual report on RC grant capture and success rates has included an excel file that can be downloaded. Have I missed something, or is this not available this year? It's always useful to see the breakdown across Research Councils too.
Hi, thanks for flagging and apologies for the delay. The file should now be visible and available to download at the bottom of this article. RP
Hi Rachel, Previously, the annual report on RC grant capture and success rates has included an excel file that can be downloaded. Have I missed something, or is this not available this year? It's always useful to see the breakdown across Research Councils too.