The success of a leading research council in boosting the proportion of grant applications that are approved could herald the introduction of "demand-management" mechanisms across all the UK research councils.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council recorded a success rate of 30 per cent in 2009-10, up from 26 per cent the previous year. The increase follows the introduction of a number of measures to control demand, including a ban on the uninvited resubmission of proposals and temporary curbs on repeatedly unsuccessful applicants.
David Delpy, the council's chief executive, told Times Higher Education that the measures had resulted in a 35 per cent drop in the number of applications it had received.
"It has done what we wanted," he said. "Success rates of 30 to 35 per cent are healthy. The other councils are all looking at (demand management) and will have to come up with something."
Excluding figures for the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which are not regarded as comparable to those of the other councils, the overall research council success rate remains at last year's figure of 23 per cent, an all-time low. This compares with 28 per cent in 2007-08 and 30.5 per cent in 2006-07.
A number of research councils saw their success rates continue to decline.
The Medical Research Council's rate fell from 21 to 19 per cent; the Arts and Humanities Research Council's from 18 to 16 per cent (excluding fellowships); and the Economic and Social Research Council's from 19 to 17 per cent.
A spokeswoman for the MRC said its decline was mainly because in 2008-09 it put out "a large number of focused calls and initiatives", which "tend to have higher success rates".
That year's figure represented a fall of six percentage points from 2007-08.
The spokeswoman said that the councils had been sharing methods of demand management, adding that the MRC's approach would be announced in its delivery plan for the coming spending period, expected to be released this month.
A spokesman for the AHRC declined to speculate about demand-management measures until the council's share of the research budget was known, but said that the council did not regard the fall in its success rate in 2009-10 as being statistically significant.
The ESRC also declined to comment, but its director of policy and administration, Phil Sooben, admitted in a speech in September that it was contemplating demand-management measures.
The need for demand management may also be heightened by the savings in excess of 30 per cent that the government expects the councils to make in their internal operating budgets.
But Ian Walmsley, pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Oxford, which won the highest number of research council grants in 2009-10, cautioned against clamping down too heavily on applications.
"It is a bit demoralising when you see your proposal has only a 10 per cent chance of success, but it is worse if you exclude ideas from being aired and evaluated. Low success rates are a lesser evil," he said.
David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, also cautioned against excessive demand management and dismissed the EPSRC's scheme as "throwing the baby out with the bathwater".
He said a better alternative would be to limit the number of applications that institutions with low success rates could make.
"To penalise people at UCL who might just be having ideas before their time isn't sensible," he said.
Ian Marshall, deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at Coventry University, agreed. He predicted that the EPSRC scheme would have "unintended consequences, such as discriminating against early-career researchers and those involved in more novel research".
"It could also hit experienced researchers who hit a dry patch or whose research drifts out of favour," he added.