What the latest application and success rates data tells us

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 explores the latest analysis just published on ESRC’s application and success rate data.

The data for decisions (ODS) made on ESRC research grant and fellowship proposals in the last financial year is now available on the ESRC website. And our analysis (PDF) has been updated to reflect this. Some parts of the picture have changed, but some remain the same.

What’s not new is that, with a static ESRC budget, success rates will inevitably mirror demand. As demand goes up, success rates go down. And last year demand went down, so success rates went up, to around 24% overall. There was also a slight improvement in responsive mode, up to 14% from last year’s 12% (more on this below).

Similarly unchanged is the set of research organisations that appear to have success rates which are meaningfully higher than those of their peers. Over the most recent three years we again see Edinburgh, the IFS and the LSE standing out. They may have been joined, for this period at least, by Aberdeen. Really it’s the lack of variability and significant departures from the average that’s striking.

There’s also no real change when looking at success rates by discipline. Political science does well, education and management & business studies do less well. But that’s not true when looking at responsive mode only. At that level, no one does better than anyone else.

Two things have changed though. In 2016-17 (and I suspect only in 2016-17) the median size of awarded grants actually went down relative to the preceding year. There is a rather boring cause for this, as explained in the accompanying analysis. In reality this looks like a blip: a pothole in the road not the crest of a hill.

analysis graphic 2.PNG

The other main change is that in 2016-17, for the first time more than 30% of funding decisions related to responsive mode. This upward movement in the proportion of decisions that relate to responsive mode has been in the figures for a while. Last year though, it didn’t look like a trend. But it does now. Strangely, the number of decisions made in the Open Call actually went down compared to the previous year. What we’re seeing isn’t an increase in responsive activity, but a slower decrease than is found in managed activity. The reduction in volume outside responsive mode reflects a move towards larger applications, not least because of GCRF.

In fact it looks like GCRF has influenced a large part of the changes seen in 2016-17. This isn’t surprising, but it does make it harder to work out what normal looks like. Given all the changes on the cards, maybe it’s best just to forget about the idea of ‘normal’ anyway.


If you have any comments please email alex.hulkes@esrc.ac.uk

Visit the ESRC website for further details on our performance data, including demand management and grant processing.

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