Very nearly an armful

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.

In his latest blog, he looks at new analysis on the size of ESRC grant submissions and awards.

One of the most common questions we’re asked by potential applicants is ‘how much should I ask for?’ Suppositions and folklore tend to suggest that there is an acceptable upper (and maybe a lower) bound for a funding request: unwritten and culturally derived rather than mandated, and beyond which it is not safe to stray. As Tony Hancock might say, it’s somewhere between a smear and an armful.

The most recent analysis on the size of ESRC grant submissions and awards (PDF) addresses some of these issues and looks more broadly at grant sizes.

When it comes to changing grant values over time there is a clear trend with clear results. Smaller grants have become much rarer over the last few years. And the proportion of funding awarded through grants of over £1,000,000 has increased. Over the last six years half of all our funding was awarded through grants that large or larger.

fig 1

But interest focuses more on what happens to these grants and how their size affects their fate. Overall though, it seems that on its own the size of a grant is not a strong determinant of success or failure. Where size-related differences in success rates do exist, they are a reflection of the success rates of the calls which attracted the proposals far more than the proposals themselves.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some underlying behavioural patterns and preferences, but they are hidden pretty deep down and are rather surprising. If there is a norm of behaviour around which those preparing proposals gather it seems that it might be not the size of the grant but the rate at which it spends that dominates thinking and decisions. And it probably does this unconsciously – unless of course it’s a fact well-known outside Swindon, that we’ve previously missed, that ESRC grants should spend money at a rate of £316 per day.

In the end it seems that things other than grant size matter most in the decision making process. The advice is always to ask for as much as you need to do the task you’ve described, no more and no less. Though maybe we can add that it’s worth also considering how manageable the flow of funds is: somewhere between a pinprick and a haemorrhage.

If you have any comments please email

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

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