Fundable research and success rates


alex-hulkes-150Alex Hulkes is Strategic Lead for Insights at the ESRC, and is responsible for developing our ability to evaluate and carry out data-informed analysis of ESRC investments, policy and operation.

Here he writes about the different types of success rate for research proposals. 

There’s a lot that can be learned from the data we have on research proposal outcomes. Attention tends to focus on the overall proposal success rate and the success rates of individual research organisations.

Our two most recent ESRC Insights analyses look at other types of success rate and try to understand why they are what they are.

Our first analysis, on success rate distributions (PDF), introduces not one but four success rates. Alongside the overall success rate, everyone has:

  • a fundability rate (the proportion of all proposals that is fundable)
  • a fundable rate (the proportion of all proposals that is judged fundable, but not funded)
  • and a conversion rate (the proportion of fundable proposals that is funded).

Each of these rates tells us something different.

The fundable rate is interesting as it’s the ‘bad luck’ rate. It looks for instances where an award could have been made but where the money wasn’t there to give out, and tells us how often this happens. Across research organisations it doesn’t look like anyone has a meaningfully high or low fundable rate. Though it may feel like it to some.

The fundability rate is different. Fundability rates vary by research organisation, and they vary meaningfully. The question is why. Although our accompanying analysis on fundability and success (PDF) often refers to the number of applications, and while it’s easy to draw charts that show that more applications lead to higher fundability rates, that’s not the true picture.

fundabilityTo show that this isn’t the case we’ve used some data from REF to help tease out what matters. It seems that the answer is ‘research quality’. All other things being equal, research organisations that have a track record of being able to produce higher quality outputs produce fundable proposals to ESRC more consistently.

And what doesn’t matter? Definitely not scale of activity, and probably not proposal volume. Well, maybe proposal volume matters a little bit, but it’s not clear. While proposals can be good or bad, and while (presumably) it is possible in the end to learn how to write a good proposal by writing more of them, simply submitting more proposals is an inefficient approach. If an organisation wants to increase its success rate, a focus on the research concept itself is by far the best bet.


To get in touch, please email alex.hulkes@esrc.ac.uk

Visit the ESRC website for more on our performance information data.

Mine your data – why understanding online health communities matters

aude-bicquelet-4-webDr Aude Bicquelet is a Research Director in the Health team at NatCen – the National Centre for Social Research. Aude specialises in the analysis of ‘Big Qualitative Data’ on health-related issues and has worked with professional and regulatory health bodies such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Royal College of Physicians. 

In November, Aude presented findings from a recent study looking into how people use social media to discuss health issues at the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

A staggering 73% of adults in the UK turn to the internet when experiencing health problems. Whether it is to check symptoms, find out about available treatments or share experiences about living with a particular condition, the internet has become the first port of call with many turning to the web before they even consider going to see a doctor.
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Grammar schools: does selection help mobility?

n-burgessNuala Burgess is an ESRC-funded PhD student at King’s College London. Her PhD examines sixth form selective practices and the ways in which these shape the post-school choices of moderately attaining students, with a particular focus on the HE choosing of students who do not aspire to ‘elite’ universities.

The government plans of re-introducing the 11+ examination and the expansion of grammar schools has proved controversial – but does research provide any evidence about benefits from selective schools?
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Disadvantage and worklessness: a longitudinal perspective

Rob DaviesRob Davies is Public Affairs Manager for CLOSER, the UK longitudinal studies consortium funded by the ESRC and the Medical Research Council. CLOSER brings together eight biomedical and social longitudinal studies, with participants born as early as the 1930s to the present day.

Before I worked for CLOSER I helped run a charity supporting vulnerable people with different needs, including addictions, mental health problems, debt or homelessness. I saw first-hand the damaging effects of these complex issues and the barriers people face in their attempts to get back to work and take advantage of opportunities many of us take for granted.

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Leaving and learning: should we raise the school leaving age?

Sarah Womack 150Sarah Womack is a former political and social affairs correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. Here she asks – should pupils stay in school until the age of 19?

This month (April 2017) marks the 70th anniversary of one of the UK’s most significant social reforms, but you probably couldn’t guess what it is. In 1947, when the school leaving age was raised from 14 to 15 – and, for the first time, there was secondary education for all – critics claimed there were not enough buildings or teachers to cope, and pupils would truant, leading to a crime wave. But serious revolt didn’t happen, and, 25 years later, the leaving age rose again to 16 – and, in 2013-15, participation in education or training was raised to 17, then 18. Continue reading