A Competition to Avoid?

British academics find odds so long to win funding in the social sciences that some wonder why they bother trying.
September 1, 2011

The grant application success rate at the first of the British research councils to report its annual figures has declined yet again, prompting an academic to suggest that it should be "put out of its misery."

The Economic and Social Research Council’s overall success rate fell to 16 percent in 2010-11, a decline of one percentage point on 2009-10 and three points on 2008-09. Within that total, however, the success rate for the research council’s standard grants program fell from 14 percent in 2009-10 to just 12 percent last year.

In 2007, a report by Research Councils UK warned that success rates of under 20 percent could undermine the "efficiency and effectiveness" of the peer review ­system, partly due to the "demoralizing effect on researchers."

Figures in the ESRC’s annual report show that success rates in its discontinued small grants program rose from 19 percent to 21 percent.

The overall number of applications recommended for funding fell by about a third to 141, and the total value of ESRC grants awarded fell by a similar amount from £37.5 million ($60.9 million) to just £24.7 million ($40.1 million).

A spokeswoman for the council said the latter fall was largely due to its decision to postpone various programs ahead of last October’s Comprehensive Spending Review. "Before the announcement we needed to provide for an uncertain funding outcome. It would have been unwise for the council to create a financial liability that it might not be in a position to meet," she said.

In the event, the ESRC budget was reduced by about 3 percent in real terms. New awards had also been temporarily frozen during the ESRC’s transition to the new Shared ­Services Center, the spokeswoman added. She said the abolition of the small grants and mid-career fellowship programs would reduce the volume of applications.

The council also expected success rates to be improved by measures introduced in June to encourage research organizations to screen their applications for quality. Further demand management measures could be introduced in winter 2012 if these do not prove sufficient.

However, Robert Dingwall, professor of social sciences at ­Nottingham Trent University, said low success rates raised questions about the council’s future. "It may well be time to put the ESRC out of its misery," he said. "When you are looking at funding rates that are so low, you are really talking about a lottery. You might just as well add the money to the ­quality-­related pot [distributed by the ­funding councils]. Even if you are talking about strategic investments, universities have to put in so much on top of ESRC funding that you could leave the decisions to them and reward successful investment through the research excellence framework."

Dingwall said the low level of funding also called into question the ESRC’s “self-appointed role” as a manager of the UK’s social science research capacity.

"Can you really dictate to universities how they should be training Ph.D. students or planning postdoctoral careers when you are actually making so few resources available?" he asked.

He described demand management as a "non-solution" because the scarcity of available funding meant "credible projects" would still go unfunded even if "half-cooked ones" were no longer submitted.

Caroline Glendinning, chair of the UK Social Policy Association, agreed that social science research in the UK was "desperately underfunded."

"Research funding looks like becoming more and more selective and concentrated in the hands of the very few. In particular, the prospects for younger researchers – on whom the future health of UK social science disciplines depends – look very poor," she said.

Neil Ward, executive dean of the University of East Anglia’s Faculty of Social Sciences, said recent public concern over riots, international economics and media ownership and regulation suggested that ESRC funding should be increased relative to the other research councils. "These issues all underline the importance of social science insights and understanding, and make this a strange time to be seeing such a drop in funding," he said.

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