Research Grant Application Success rates: An optimist writes….

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in October 2019 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

Success rates for many research funding calls may be low, but a quality, competitive application’s chances of success will be much higher. Adam Golberg tries to look on the bright side of life…

Dark Elf Dice, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When analysing a funding call and deciding whether to apply, it’s always worth finding out the success rate from previous rounds. Some funders are better than others in terms of publicising success rates. Some won’t share them at all, others will hide them away in annual reports, others will publish a lot of details and data, but on relatively hard to find pages on their website. Or they’ll conflate outline and full application stage success rates. If you can’t find success rates easily, ask your friendly neighbourhood research development professional.

One-off or new calls might specify a total budget or expected number of projects to be funded, but obviously won’t have success rates. Changes to funding schemes can make comparisons with previous years less useful, and with multiple stage schemes (outline, full, and perhaps an interview), it’s probably the success rate at each stage that’s most useful to know. Where calls don’t have success rates – and often even when they do – there will usually be details of approximately many awards will be made, or what kind of budget is available for this call.

These success rates and numbers of projects likely to be funded are likely to be depressing – success rates in single digits, in the most extreme cases. But don’t get discouraged too quickly.

Overall scheme success rate vs. competitive application success rate.  

I’d argue that it’s worth thinking in terms of two different success rates. The first is the statistical success rate – total number of awards divided by the total number of applications. I’d argue that there’s a second success rate – the number of awards divided by the number of fundable applications.

What makes an application ‘fundable’?

  • Eligibility: not eligible = automatically unsuccessful.
  • Significance and competitiveness – not merely of relevance to the remit of the call. It must have the clear potential to make a significant contribution to the goals and objectives of the call at the scale expected.
  • Feasibility – in terms of methods, access to data, power calculations, management plan, relations with partners, budgets/resources. Can this be done as proposed?
  • Consistency – research questions don’t mutate or appear and disappear, different sections of the application reinforce rather than contradict each other
  • Clarity – if your application is unclear, you risk referees choosing the least sympathetic reading of any sections that are ambiguous or under-specified. Worse, they might conclude that you haven’t thought it through. Your proposal should have been through multiple drafts and checked repeatedly.

If your application ticks all of these boxes, you probably have a competitive application, and ‘your’ likely success rate could well be double the overall success rate. The overall success rate includes rushed or undercooked applications; the crowbarred-to-fit-the-remit; the ineligible; the incomprehensible; the only-incremental-progress; the only-submitted-to-appease-the-Head-of-School. The fundamentally misconceived; the lacking in novelty; the missing key elements of the literature.

Two reasons not to get too excited – the first is that even double the standard success rate means the odds are very much against you for the majority of funding calls. The second is that most applicants think that their application ticks all the boxes, and won’t number among the unfundable driving down the overall success rate. Probably a few people are knowingly risking a long shot for better reasons or for worse, but most ought to be confident in their proposal.

So how do you tell if you have the potential to submit a competitive, fundable application? Well, the fact that you’re thinking of research funding as a competition is a good start. Probably the best way is to get external input – from your Research Development Manager  (or equivalent) and from senior academic colleagues – at the earliest possible stage. It’s impossible to read a funding call without seeing it through the tinted lenses of your own research ideas and your own expectations. Then you need to take a realistic view about your starting point in terms of the development of the ideas and the team, what the application form requires, the likely success rate for quality applications, the time and energy you and your team have available, and what else you might have done with that time.

One off calls – find the size of prize

One bit of advice I used to give was to see how many projects or fellowships are likely to be funded, and then come to a view about whether your proposal is likely to be competitive in terms of significance.  If there are twenty early career fellowships available, are you likely to be among the twenty strongest applicants in terms of track record and quality and significance of your proposal?

However, I now think the question to ask is subtly different. Is your application likely to be among the twenty strongest who will actually apply, rather than among those who might conceivably apply? There will always be a proportion of potentially strong rivals who don’t apply for whatever reason – they don’t have the time; they don’t have the energy; it’s the wrong stage in the research cycle; they don’t know about the call; or they have other irons in the fire.

Another reason why I no longer pose the question so bluntly is in response to an outstanding early career researcher pointing out to me that it might encourage the wrong people and discourage the right people. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the tendency of the skilled in any particular task to underestimate their own skill and overestimate the skill of others, and while those lacking in skill overestimate their own abilities and find it harder to recognise genuine skill among others. So those who aren’t outstanding candidates are more likely to wrongly believe they are, while those who might are more likely to doubt themselves.

Reasons to be cheerful, part III

Somebody has to win. Individuals and teams are winning those grants. Yes, there is an element of luck involved – which referees are selected, who is on the panel, who speaks up for/against your proposal, what rival bids propose and whether that complements or conflicts. But there’s little you can do about any of that. Your job is to make sure, when deciding to apply – that you can produce a competitive application by the deadline. An eligible, feasible application offering a significant contribution, speaking loudly and clearly to the remit, and written up with clarity and consistency. An application that has every chance of clearing every hurdle and still being in contention on the final straight. Manage that, and you can expect ‘your’ success rate to be significantly better than the scheme average.