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

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

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