The arc of funding

by Alex Hulkes

We recently published ESRC success rate data and analysis for the seven years up until April 2018 – the first published since we became one of the nine UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) councils. This blog expands on one aspect of it – increases in grant size.

Figure 4 of the analysis (reproduced below) shows how median ESRC grant sizes have changed over the last seven financial years. Slightly confusingly, the parlance in UKRI is to describe both funded and unfunded proposals as ‘grants’, and in both cases the trend is upward even after adjusting for the effects of inflation.

median grants 700

The average annual inflation-adjusted increase in median ESRC grant size is about £25,000. You can read the analysis (PDF) if you want to find out what effect this has had on our success rate.

This trend of increasing grant sizes is likely to be found across UKRI, and I can show that this is indeed the case by returning to an old favourite: the ternary diagram.

Based on data taken from the UKRI Gateway to Research website the next diagram shows how the compositions of the live grant portfolios of the eight grant-awarding councils in UKRI have changed over the last three years. If at the start of every month you had categorised each live grant as ‘small’, ‘medium’ or ‘large’ (for ranges of £0 to £250,000, £250,000 to £1 million, and £1million+ respectively), calculated the percentage of grants that fell into each category and followed how that percentage changed over time, you may have generated the chart below:

triangle 700

Before going any further, colleagues in UKRI would probably like me to say that GtR data does not represent the entire portfolio of spending for the UKRI councils and so does not fully describe everything we do. There are systematic gaps (no MRC studentship spending is recorded for example) and you have to be careful not to stretch it beyond breaking point.

Even with gaps in the data it seems safe to conclude that for UKRI as a whole the arc of funding is long, but it bends towards larger grants. The arrows on the chart indicate a qualitative direction of travel for each council.

Innovate UK has clearly been on a bit of a size-related funding journey in the last 36 months (as well as moving to the top floor in Polaris House) while EPSRC has pivoted on a sixpence although overall its portfolio has not changed much.

Like most councils, ESRC has ended up with a higher proportion of larger grants at the end of its journey than it had at the start. Rather surprisingly, in this view our grant portfolio is more similar to STFC’s than anyone else’s. The swerve in late 2017 that has taken us a little away is down to a mixture of new training grants, GCRF funding and a new UKDS grant among other things.

So grants are getting larger across UKRI. Why this is happening is an interesting question, beyond the scope of this post.

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.

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