The ESRC and “Demand Management”: Part 1 – How did we get here?

A picture of Oliver Twist asking for more

Developing appropriate demand management strategies is not a new challenge

The ESRC have some important decisions to make this summer about what to do about “demand management”.  The consultation on these changes closed in June, and I understand about 70 responses were received.  Whatever they come up with is unlikely to be popular, but I think there’s no doubt that some kind of action is required.

I’ve got a few thoughts on this, and I’m going to split them across a number of blog posts over the next week or so.  I’m going to talk about the context, the steps already taken, the timetable, possible future steps, and how I think we in the “grant getting community” should respond.

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According to the presentation that the ESRC presented around the country this spring, the number of applications received has increased by about a third over the last five years.  For most of those five years, there was no more money, and because of the flat cash settlement at the last comprehensive spending review, there’s now effectively less money than before.  As a result, success rates have plummeted, down to about 13% on average.  There are a number of theories as to why application rates have risen.  One hypothesis is that there are just more social science researchers than ever before, and while I’m sure that’s a factor, I think there’s something else going on.

I wonder if the current problem has its roots in the last RAE,   On the whole, it wasn’t good in brute financial terms for social science – improving quality in relative terms (unofficial league tables) or absolute terms was far from a guarantee of maintaining levels of funding.  A combination of protection for the STEM subjects, grade inflation rising standards, and increased numbers of staff FTE returns shrunk the unit of resource.  The units that did best in brute financial terms, it seems to me, were those that were able to maintain or improve quality, but submit a much greater number of staff FTEs.  The unit of assessment that I was closest to in the last RAE achieved just this.

What happened next?  Well, I think a lot of institutions and academic units looked at a reduction in income, looked at the lucrative funding rules of research council funding, pondered briefly, and then concluded that perhaps the ESRC (and other research councils) would giveth where RAE had taken away.

Problem is, I think everyone had the same idea.

On reflection, this may only have accelerated a process that started with the introduction of Full Economic Costing (fEC).  This had just started as I moved into research development, so I don’t really remember what went before it.  I do remember two things, though: firstly, that although research technically still represented a loss-making activity (in that it only paid 80% of the full cost) the reality was that the lucrative overhead payments were very welcome indeed.  The second thing I remember is that puns about the hilarious acronym grew very stale very quickly.

So…. institutions wanted to encourage grant-getting activities.  How did they do this?  They created posts like mine.  They added grant-getting to the criteria for academic promotions.  They started to set expectations.  In some places, I think this even took the form of targets – either for individuals or for research groups.  One view I heard expressed was along the lines of, well if Dr X has a research time allocation of Y, shouldn’t we expect her to produce Z applications per year?  Er…. if Dr X can produce outstanding research proposals at that rate, and that applying for funding is the best use of her time, then sure, why not?  But not all researchers are ESRC-able ideas factories, and some of them are probably best advised to spend at least some of their time, er, writing papers.  And my nightmare for social science in the UK is that everyone spends their QR-funded research time writing grant applications, rather than doing any actual research.

Did the sector as a whole adopt a scattergun policy of firing off as many applications as possible, believing that the more you fired, the more likely it would be that some would hit the target?  Have academics been applying for funding because they think it’s expected for them, and/or they have one eye on promotion?  Has the imperative to apply for funding for something come first, and the actual research topic second?  Has there been a tendency to treat the process of getting research council funding as a lottery, for which one should simply buy as many tickets as possible?  Is all this one of the reasons why we are where we are today, with the ESRC considering demand management measures?  How many rhetorical questions can you pose without irritating the hell out of your reader?

I think the answer to these questions (bar the last one) is very probably ‘yes’.

But my view is based on conservations with a relatively small number of colleagues at a relatively small number of institutions.  I’d be very interested to hear what others think.

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