At last some good news for UK physicists and chemists: although there is less research money in the pot, more than one in three grant applications to the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) were funded last year.
As the Times Higher Education reports today, EPSRC success rates in 2010-11 shot up to 36%, a startling recovery from recent years. It bucks the general trend: success rates at other UK research funding agencies are still falling (see chart, right).
Those who have been following EPSRC know how this has been done — through a series of tough and sometimes controversial policies in what the agency terms ‘demand management’, designed to reduce the burden on the agency by getting researchers to submit fewer applications (see ‘Fixing a grant system in crisis’, Nature, 464, 474-475; 2010). And, as the numbers show, this is exactly what has happened (see chart, below), though the Times Higher Education story wonders if all of this decline can be ascribed to EPSRC’s policies.
All is not rosy in the EPSRC garden. The policies have led to protests. Researchers got particularly angry about one policy in 2009, which involved preventing repeatedly unsuccessful grant applicants from continuing to apply. (They forced EPSRC to revise its scheme.) And the agency, which is losing government funding, continues to draw the ire of its scientists by cutting support for PhD students, and most recently by announcing reduced support for particular subjects (such as organic chemistry), which researchers say has been done without sufficient consultation and on the basis of weak evidence.
Last year, a Nature editorial (‘Tough love’, Nature, 464, 465; 2010) called EPSRC’s efforts to improve success rates a ‘gutsy gamble’. Do the 2010-11 figures suggest that the gamble is paying off? Other research agencies — and not just those in the UK — may be watching closely.