There’s a very strange article in the Times Higher today which claims that the ESRC’s latest “grant application figures raise questions about its future”.
Er…. do they? Seriously? Why?
It’s true that success rates are a problem – down to 16% overall, and 12% for the Research Grants Scheme (formerly Standard Grants. According to the article, these are down from 17% and 14% from the year before. It’s also true that RCUK stated in 2007 that 20% should be the minimum success rates. But this long term decline in success rates – plus a cut in funding in real terms – is exactly why the ESRC has started a ‘demand management’ strategy.
A comment attributed to one academic (which could have been a rhetorical remark taken out of context) appears to equate the whole thing to a lottery,and calls for the whole thing to be scrapped and the funding distributed via the RAE/REF. This strikes me as an odd view, though not one, I’m sure, confined to the person quoted. But it’s not a majority view, not even among the select number of academics approached for comments. All of the other academics named in the article seem to be calling for more funding for social sciences, so it would probably be legitimate to wonder why the focus of the article is about “questions” about the ESRC’s “future”, rather than calls for more funding. But perhaps that’s just how journalism works. It certainly got my attention.
While I don’t expect these calls for greater funding for social science research will be heard in the current politico-economic climate, it’s hard to see that abolishing the ESRC and splitting its budget will achieve very much. The great strength of the dual funding system is that while the excellence of the Department of TopFiveintheRAE at the University of Russell deserves direct funding, it’s also possible for someone at the Department of X at Poppleton University to get substantial funding for their research if their research proposal is outstanding enough. Maybe your department gets nothing squared from HEFCE as a result of the last RAE, but if your idea is outstanding it could be you – to use a lottery slogan. This strikes me as a massively important principle – even if in practice, most of it will go to the Universities of Russell. As a community of social science scholars, calling for the ESRC to be abolished sounds like cutting of the nose to spite the face.
Yes, success rates are lower than we’d like, and yes, there is a strong element of luck in getting funded. But it’s inaccurate to call it a “lottery”. If your application isn’t of outstanding quality, it won’t get funded. If it is, it still might not get funded, but… er… that’s not a lottery. All of the other academics named in the article seem to be calling for more funding for the social sciences.
According to the ESRC’s figures between 2007 and 2011, 9% of Standard Grant applications were either withdrawn or rejected at ‘office’ stage for various reasons. 13% fell at the referee stage (beta or reject grades), and 21% fell at the assessor stage (alpha minus). So… 43% of applications never even got as far as the funding panel before being screened out on quality or eligibility grounds.
So… while the headline success rate might be 12%, the success rates for fundable applications are rather better. 12 funded out of 100 applications is 12%, but 12 funded out of 57 of the 100 of the applications that are competitive is about 28%. That’s what I tell my academic colleagues – if your application is outstanding, then you’re looking at 1 in 4. If it’s not outstanding,
but merely interesting, or valuable, or would ‘add to the literature’, then look to other (increasingly limited) options.
So…. we need the ESRC. It would be a disaster for social science research if it were not to have a Research Council. We may not agree with everything it does and all of the decisions it makes, we may be annoyed and frustrated when they won’t fund our projects, but we need a funder of social science with money to invest in individual research projects, rather than merely in excellent Departments.