The supply and demand of funding grants

Alex Hulkes is Strategic Lead for Insights at the ESRC. Here he highlights some of the key points of a recent analysis of ESRC’s demand management policy which was published today.


In November I wrote a blog which focused on grant success rates. While they’re an interesting topic in their own right, it’s worth remembering that they are derived from two underlying figures which are arguably more important: the supply of funding and the volume of demand for that supply.

Of these, supply is key. After all, it is what determines how much social science we can support. But application figures don’t have much to say about supply so I’m going to focus on demand and highlight a few key points from an analysis of ESRC’s demand management policy.

We introduced our demand management policy in June 2011. It focused on working with Research Organisations to identify and remove from the process, before submission, a long tail of lower-quality applications. And it worked. The total volume of applications went down, quality went up. We got fewer, but better, applications, just as we had hoped.dem-mgt-1

Demand has crept back up in the last two years. Unfortunately, much of this increase has come in the form of those lower-quality proposals that the policy was meant to identify and remove early on. We’re still getting a lot of fundable proposals, and the good news is that we fund about half of all of these – a pretty high success rate. But over time it’s become more and more likely that an idea that is actually not fundable will lead to the submission of a proposal.

This increase in volume, combined with the steady increase in average grant sizes, seems to have pushed us into a new funding environment. There are more proposals, they are more expensive and our budget is flat. The outcome is inevitable: success rates drop.


If success rates matter, and few would argue that they don’t, then it’s important that demand is managed effectively to avoid a mismatch with the supply of funding. We know that our current policy can work, and also that it can fail to work. And any failure costs money, in the form of effort wasted writing and assessing proposals which in the end are not fundable. It’s this cost that we want to minimise, for the benefit of the whole funding system.

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3 thoughts on “The supply and demand of funding grants

  1. I would beg the ESRC to look at other Councils for examples of how you yourselves can operate a bit differently, with minimal burden, to help achieve your demand management intentions. The AHRC might be able to teach a lesson or two…
    As just a few examples, their guidance is often more helpful, they provide superior information on review and evaluation processes and criteria, and crucially, they run study days where academics and research support staff can engage with them, pick up lessons from Council staff, best practice HEIs, peer reviewers and panel chairs. The ESRC continuing to withdraw into itself, pumping out reports saying the sector must try harder (without doing some of the things other Councils are to help us do just that), would be massive a shame and unhelpful to all.


  2. Pingback: Finding the right chemistry for a good proposal | ESRC blog

  3. Pingback: Top 10 ESRC blogs from 2017 | ESRC blog

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