UK research grant success rates rise for first time in five years

Largest amount of cash handed out by research councils overall since 2014-15 brings an end to negative trend

November 16, 2017
Source: Getty

The success rate for grant proposals at UK research councils has increased for the first time in five years, ending a steady downward trend that saw high numbers of applications rejected.

The amount of cash handed out to universities and research institutions across all research councils measured also increased significantly to a total of almost £1.29 billion during 2016-17 – £175 million more than the last cycle, according to data compiled by Times Higher Education.

While individual research council outcomes were variable for the 2016-17 financial year, the proportion of successful grant proposals increased by one percentage point, giving an overall figure of 27 per cent, equating to a total of 2,371 successful bids.

One of the biggest proportional increases came from the Medical Research Council, which saw an overall success rate of 22.5 per cent – up from 20 per cent in 2015-16.

Sarah Collinge, head of research funding operations at the council, said that this could be attributed to new targeted funding allocations, such as the government-led Global Challenges Research Fund, a five-year, £1.5 billion project launched in 2016. “Although there was a slight increase in applications, more awards were possible in some disciplines [for this reason],” she told THE.

Despite the large increase in cash granted however, top-earning institutions earned significantly less on average than in previous years, suggesting that funding is being more evenly spread across applicants than before.

But Ned Garnett, associate director of research at the Natural Environment Research Council, warned that institutions should not assume that the sudden upward spike in success rates and cash flow was indicative of things to come.

“Success rates vary each year because the range and types of calls that we run varies,” he told THE. “The increase from last year largely reflects this difference, rather than being a trend.”

The council still receives very many more high-quality proposals than it is able to fund, he added, especially in NERC’s discovery science funding stream.

“In the case of discovery science standard grants, we limit the number of proposals that institutions can submit based on past success rates. Through this approach, we aim to achieve a 20 per cent success rate for standard grants.

“In other schemes where we anticipate particularly high demand, we try to put measures in place to limit the number of full proposals we receive by including an initial outline stage.”

With both reporting an increase in applications, success rates slipped for the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council this year, by 1.2 and 0.5 percentage points, respectively. The AHRC granted about £7.7 million more in total, however, and the BBSRC’s cash grants increased by almost £30 million – a rise of 16.8 per cent. The Science and Technology Facilities Council was excluded from the analysis.

Gary Grubb, associate director at the AHRC, said that he did not believe that the increase in funding was representative of a long-term trend. “We introduced a change to the sequence of our grants panel meetings, which meant that the outcomes of more panels were reported in the 2016-17 year, and we believe that this has contributed to the higher commitment figures for grants,” he said.

While the overall success rate for the Economic and Social Research Council improved slightly for 2016-17 (13.8 per cent, up from 12 per cent in 2015-16), the council has a consistently low figure compared with the five other councils analysed. 

Money trail: overall UK research council success rates 2016-17




Success rates (%)

Amount (£)

Arts and Humanities Research Council





Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council





Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council





Economic and Social Research Council**





Medical Research Council*





Natural Environment Research Council










Source: UK Research Councils. Note: Success rate is by number of applications. Because of rounding, totals may not exactly equal individual research council figures. Some specialist, non-academic and overseas recipients have been excluded, hence success rates may differ slightly from research councils’ stated totals. *MRC data contains grants and fellowships since the council was unable to provide separated data. ** ESRC data for open call grants only

Alex Hulkes, strategic lead for the insights team at the ESRC, said that this could be down to a range of factors – namely that the council does not implicate a screening process for applications, unlike some.

“In my experience, the way in which an ESRC applicant approaches ESRC feels very different to the way in which an applicant approaches EPSRC, for example – they’re not directly comparable,” Dr Hulkes told THE.

“Both the ESRC and the AHRC each have about 20 per cent of all the applicants of the whole academic community chasing after two of the smallest research council budgets, so that’s another factor.”

An ESRC spokesman said that the data it had provided to THE covered its “open call” grants only, and that its overall success rate was higher, at about 24 per cent.

To this regard, calls have been made in previous years for a more uniform method for applications – something that could indeed come into place under the creation of the new UK Research and Innovation body next year. But while researchers may feel hopeful about this year’s improved success rates, it is unclear how funding schemes may change once the umbrella body comes into power in April.

Mr Hulkes said that he was “immensely positive” about UKRI, however. “It will be a good opportunity for councils to get together and ask themselves, ‘so what are we trying to achieve through early careers support?’, for example. Because clearly we’ve got seven different understandings of what a scheme like that should look like.

“In doing these things, we’ll get better and better answers. Just as the world doesn’t end on 31 December, the move to UKRI doesn’t mean that the world ends on the 31 March,” he said.

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