Life, the universe and everything

by Alex Hulkes

Presumably ‘How many ways are there to travel between UK research council interfaces?’ isn’t a question that Douglas Adams had in mind when he was writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But there are seven research councils, which means that the number of directions that can be taken is 42 (that’s n(n-1) if there are n councils and the direction of travel matters). All of which serves merely to provide a preamble to this blog, which looks at one aspect of cross-council application behaviour.

In general anyone eligible for Research Councils UK (RCUK) funding can apply to any council. Some won’t ever apply to more than one as they don’t need to – in many cases all of an individual’s research interests will be contained in just one place. But some applicants’ interests will span council boundaries, although based on historic data such individuals will probably be in the minority: about 13% of all applicants to RCUK in the five financial years 2012-13 to 2016-17 applied to more than one council.

As you might expect, the proportion of applicants who apply to more than one council varies by council. The graphic below shows this variation. To understand the diagram read the value in each cell as the percentage of applicants to [council in column] who also applied to [council in row]. The colours are scaled in proportion to the percentage in the cell, making this chart a heatmap.


ESRC is alphabetically and by chance in the middle of each edge. This makes our cells easy to find, though they have low proportions and so don’t stand out quite as strikingly as those at the intersection of BBSRC and MRC.

ESRC’s most well-trodden application interface is with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). About 5% of ESRC applicants over the last five years applied there also. There’s a comparable level of traffic between us and EPSRC and us and the Medical Research Council (MRC) (both at 3.6%.) The ESRC-BBSRC (Biosciences and Biotechnology Research Council) and ESRC-NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) boundary is less traversed. And unsurprisingly the path least travelled, though not quite the road not taken, is that between us and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Looking at it from the other councils’ points of view, 10% of applicants to AHRC also applied to ESRC, and 4% of applicants to MRC also applied to us. EPSRC’s size ensured that only a small proportion of its applicant pool (2.6%) applied also to ESRC.

Much of this resonates to some extent with the view of the ESRC grant portfolio published earlier this year (PDF). This shows that outside the core ESRC disciplines our strongest disciplinary connections are with health, media and ICT.

ESRC’s relatively low proportion of cross-council applicants will to a great, but undefined, extent reflect the size of our portfolio. ESRC is the likely home council for perhaps a quarter of all UK academics and covers a huge disciplinary space.

Just as someone who lives in a large country like the USA is less likely to need to go overseas if they want to see both sandy beaches and snowy mountains than is someone from, for example, Belgium, many ESRC applicants simply won’t need to dust off their RCUK passports all that frequently.

Whether the traffic at the border posts is of the right size, we cannot say. But there is at least some. If you choose to cross research council boundaries, or if you have to, you will not be alone.

I resist the temptation to end by saying ‘so long, and thanks…’.

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.

If you have any questions or comments please email

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

One thought on “Life, the universe and everything

  1. Pingback: Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow | ESRC blog

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