Monday, 12 October 2020

The Funnel of Love

 Funnelling grant success
(photo: Sergio Mena Ferreira on Unsplash)

Although larger universities get the majority of research funding, their success rates are no better than that of smaller ones. What makes the difference is the culture and expectations at each.

What does it take to win more research funding? This is the central, existential question at the heart of most of our work. Seeking to answer it explains why there’s been such a massive growth in research management teams in higher education and research institutes over the last decade.

One very credible answer came from Alex Hulkes, the strategic lead for the Economic and Social Research Council’s Insights Team at the Eastern Arc conference in February. He used a smorgasbord of data to spot trends and patterns in the division of funding at the ESRC and its sister councils.

Alex showed that most of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding in 2018-19 went to ‘the usual suspects’; the treemap below shows the relative size of the funding (excluding that from Innovate UK) that each institution was awarded by UKRI in 2018-19.

Russell Group universities tend to get most of the funding. No surprise there. But is there a reason why certain universities get so much more than others? Is it down to the quality of their applications or, indeed, the quality of their research?

The data that Alex produced suggested not. He plotted success rates for all UK research organisations on a scatter chart, and the results were surprising.

On the ‘x’ axis, the graph plotted the number of grants won, or ‘funding decisions made’; on the ‘y’ axis, the success rate. The outer dotted line is the perimeter for 99 per cent of institutions; the inner dotted line 95 per cent.

The results show that almost all UK institutions fit a very clear ‘funnel’, and that those with most of the grants don’t necessarily have a higher success rate than those with very few. The Russell Group and the 'golden triangle' (of the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Kings College London, Imperial and LSE) don’t have a noticeably higher success rate than much smaller universities.

Therefore the amount of their UKRI funding is solely down to the fact that these universities put in more applications. It should follow, then, that smaller universities just need to apply more, and their income would significantly increase.

This is true up to a point. But realistically there are five major factors that stop them doing so.

  • Culture. In research-intensive universities, there is an expectation that all academics apply for funding. Those who don’t would need to make a strong case for why they didn’t. At less research-intensive universities, applications are often the exception: there are fewer, and often smaller in size. Those academics who secure them are seen as a relatively small cohort of ‘big hitters’.
  • Training. It’s not just the permanent academics who are expected to apply; early career researchers are pushed to apply as well. Their success rates may be lower (and this will have an effect on the institution’s global figure), but it also trains early-career researchers in grantsmanship, and they may receive mentoring as they do so. Such experience is invaluable.
  • Confidence. Larger, more prestigious universities tend to have more self-belief and, perhaps, entitlement. Why? To paraphrase noted face-cream philosophers L’Oreal, ‘because they’re worth it’. They’re like the handsome guy at school. Shy, geeky people (like me) just look on with disbelief.
  • Time. This is central: if you don’t have time, you’re not going to submit. At smaller universities, academics often have a huge teaching load and, with the best will in the world, can’t carve out time to put together an excellent application that has a serious chance of success.
  • Necessity. Larger institutions tend to be home to more ‘big science’, which necessitates expensive teams, equipment and consumables. They need grants just to keep going, and therefore there’s a ‘churn’ of applications.

These five factors are interlinked, and most require an element of the other to be successful. Yes, you can try and change the culture and put in place an expectation that academics apply, but if they don’t have the time or the training, it would be an empty exercise.

And why bother, if academics have carved out a niche for themselves that doesn’t require major funding (this is more feasible in the arts and humanities and social sciences than elsewhere)? If they did, they may well lack the confidence to target the larger, more prestigious grants, and go instead for a series of pilot or seedcorn awards.

The fact that success rates for the smaller universities are as good as the best in class shows that a lack of talent is not what is stopping smaller institutions from getting more funding, everything else is. We have to admit that until the culture and the confidence changes, until there’s the need to do so and the time to do so, Alex’s treemap will remain unchanged.

That is all true at institutional level, but less so at an individual one. Researchers in those smaller universities should see that if their bid gets through their university’s internal peer review it should have as good a chance as any of winning funding. The odds are stacked against them getting to the point of submission for all the reasons given above, but at that point the playing field levels out. And, as the old saying goes, you miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take. 

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in September 2020 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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