Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow

by Alex Hulkes

In the spring of this year we published a blog that described how applicants to RCUK (as it was then) applied across research council boundaries. This more wintery post takes a crisp early-morning canter through an aspect of what is now cross-UKRI behaviour – the flows of funding between the seven research councils.

Just as countries have aggregated movements of trade into and out of them, every year the research councils transfer funding between them to meet commitments made by other councils or to recoup costs incurred by other councils in their name. Most commonly this will reflect the award of a grant by one council which contains significant elements of work that lies within another council’s area of responsibility.

So if you receive a large award which crosses the boundaries of more than one council, there’s a chance that it will have been funded by more than one council. The rules governing how, when and why this happens are complicated, and usually it makes no difference to the grant holder. But the end result is clear: research councils do work and fund across their remit boundaries in this most practical of ways. In the 2017-18 financial year around £100 million was rehomed through cross-council transfers, which is about 3% of total research council funding. The total spending on all cross-council working is of course far bigger than this.

Just as each country will have a net balance of trade – deficit or surplus – some councils experience a net flow inwards as a result of this activity and some do not. Of course none of this affects the actual amount of funding distributed in each council’s remit, but it does make understanding the work of the research councils just that little bit more complicated.

I don’t have exact figures for flows from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), but the magic of double-entry book keeping tells us that their net balance across all councils must be zero. The table below summarises the flows for each council, excluding STFC-related flows for the first six of them, and gives them as a proportion of their 2017-18 Comprehensive Net Expenditure (CNE) – one indicator of a council’s budget.

In (£k) 3,603 13,391 18,054 5,553 16,554 8,075 19,626
Out (£k) 3,600 19,761 12,100 15,508 6,409 7,852 19,626
Net (£k) 3 -6,370 5,954 -9,955 10,145 223 0
Net transfer as % of CNE 0.0% -1.2% 0.6% -4.6% 1.7% 0.1% 0.0%
Overall activity as % of CNE 6.4% 6.4% 2.8% 9.8% 3.8% 4.1% 8.5%

Nearly 10% of ESRC funding was cross-council in this sense, and overall ESRC is probably the largest net contributor of funding to other councils, transferring just under £10 million in 2017-18, or nearly 5% of ESRC CNE. Looking at the detail, the image below shows exactly where ESRC’s cross-council funding came from and went.


Lines between councils are scaled and shaded in proportion to the flow of funding between pairings, with the exact figures for transfers involving ESRC, in thousands of pounds, given on the chart. The arcs on the top row show flows from councils as read left to right, those on the bottom flows to councils read from left to right. The flow to STFC is included. All £3,000 of it.

ESRC’s largest flow out, just over £5 million in 2017-18, is that to EPSRC. NERC (£4 million) and MRC (£3.1 million) aren’t far behind. AHRC was the most significant contributor to ESRC, passing over a total of £2.3 million. But this was balanced by an ESRC contribution to them of £1.5 million to give a net transfer of about £800,000.

Viewed as an indicator of the importance of social science across the remits of almost all research councils, this is good news. Clearly there is a lot going on out there that requires input from the ESRC community. And as not all cross-council activity actually leads to a cross-council funding flow, what we see here does not represent everything that is going on. Councils other than ESRC offer significant opportunities for social science involvement. Give yourself an early Christmas present and see what’s out there.

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 alex.hulkes@esrc.ukri.org

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

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