Finding the right chemistry for a good proposal

Alex Hulkes is Strategic Lead for Insights at the ESRC. Here he highlights new analysis which demonstrates what elements could make a successful proposal.


My last blog looked at demand management. This time I’m looking at the quality of proposals, as judged by our peer review processes, which are submitted to ESRC.

The headlines of the new analysis (PDF) published today are that more than half the proposals we receive are not fundable, but of the fundable proposals, we fund only a half. This gives a success rate of around either 25 per cent or 50 per cent, depending on whether or not you include unfundable proposals in the calculation.


Why is the proportion of proposals judged unfundable so high? I don’t think it’s possible to point to a single cause as there are two factors at play: the inherent difficulty of the task and the ability of those engaging in the task to carry it out.

To be fundable, a proposal needs a good idea and good presentation or explanation of it. Much of the difficulty of the task rests on the question of determining what ‘good’ looks like. If applicants can divine what ‘good’ looks like in relation to substance and presentation, and can turn that understanding into a ‘good’ proposal, then all will be well for them. If either component of the task – understanding ‘good’ and acting effectively on that understanding – is lacking the result is probably going to be rejection.

There is no such thing as a proposal where the ideas simply speak for themselves, and no such thing as a proposal where style can make up for a lack of substance. Not a fundable proposal anyway.

The analysis covers a few other areas. It includes a chart of Research Organisation proposal quality fingerprints and also something of a throwback to my days as a chemistry (yes, ESRC is a broad church) undergraduate: a ternary chart. It’s a nice way to show the relative performance of Research Organisations as they work to produce funded (or at least fundable) proposals, and I hope it’s illuminating. To me it instantly evokes the smell of furniture polish, for reasons which I won’t explain here.ternary-plot

To get in touch, please email

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

One thought on “Finding the right chemistry for a good proposal

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.