With all of the fanfare of a cat-burglar slipping in through a first floor window in back office of a diamond museum, the ESRC has published its Vital Statistics for 2012-13, including the success rates by academic discipline. I’ve been looking forward to seeing these figures to see if there’s been any change since last year’s figures, which showed huge variations in success rates between different disciplines, with success rates varying from 1 in 68 for Business and Management and 2 in 62 for Education compared to 7 of 18 for socio-legal studies.
The headline news, as trumpeted in the Times Higher, is that success rates are indeed up, and that “demand management” appears to be working. Their table shows how applications, amount of money distributed, and success rates have varied over the last few years, and has figures for all of the research councils. For the ESRC, the numbers in their Vital Statistics document are slightly different (315 applications, 27% success rate) to those in the Times Higher table (310, 26%) , possibly because some non-university recipients have been excluded. The overall picture is hugely encouraging and is a great improvement on 14% success rates last year. And it’s also worth repeating that these figures don’t seem to include the Knowledge Exchange scheme, which now has a 52% success rate. This success rate is apparently too high, as the scheme is going to end in March next year to be replaced with a scheme of passing funding directly to institutions based on their ESRC funding record – similar to the EPSRC scheme which also delegates responsibility for running impact/knowledge exchange schemes to universities.
For the ESRC, “demand management” measures so far have largely consisted of:
(i) Telling universities to stop submitting crap applications (I paraphrase, obviously…..)
(ii) Telling universities that they have to have some kind of internal peer review process
(iii) Threatening some kind of researcher sanctions if (i) and (ii) don’t do the trick.
And the message appears to have been getting through. Though I do wonder how much of this gain is through eliminating “small” research grants – up to £100k – which I think in recent times had a worse success rate than Standard Grants, though that wasn’t always the case historically. Although it’s more work to process and review applications for four pots of 100k than for one of 400k, the loss of Standard Grants is to be regretted, as it’s now very difficult indeed to get funding for social science projects with a natural size of £20k-£199k.
But what you’re probably wondering is how your academic discipline got on this time round. Well, you can find this year’s and last year’s Vital Statistics documents hidden away in a part of the ESRC’s website that even I struggle to find, and I’ve collated them for easy comparison purposes here. But the figures aren’t comparing like with like – the 2011/12 figures included the last six months of the old Small Grants Scheme, which distorts things. It’s also difficult (obviously) to make judgements based on small numbers which probably aren’t statistically significant. Also, in the 2011-12 figures there were 43 applications (about 6% of the total) which were flagged as “no lead discipline”, which isn’t a category this year. But some overall trends have emerged:
- Socio-legal Studies (7 from 18, 3 from 8), Linguistics (6 from 27, 5 from 15) and Social Anthropology (5 from 18, 4 from 5) have done significantly better than the average for the last two years
- Business and Management (1 from 68, 2 from 17) and Education (2 from 62, 2 from 19) continue to do very poorly.
- Economics and Economics and Social History did very well the year before last, but much less well this year.
- Psychology got one-third of all the successes last year, and over a quarter the year before, though the success rate is only very slightly above average in both years.
- No projects in the last two years funded from Environmental Planning or Science and Technology Studies
- Demography (2 from 2) and Social Work (3 from 6) have their first projects funded since 2009/10.
Last year I speculated briefly about what the causes of these differences might be and looked at success rates in previous years, and much of that is still relevant. Although we should welcome the overall rise in success rates, it’s still the case that some academic subjects do consistently better than others with the ESRC. While we shouldn’t expect to see exactly even success rates, when some consistently outperform the average, and some under-perform, we ought to wonder why that is.