‘Promising’ results from first year of innovative grant awarding trial show greater diversity of awardees and institutions given funding

6 Sep 2023

Early results from an innovative new trial in how the British Academy awards its Small Research Grants suggests that introducing partial randomisation into the selection process could lead to a more ethnically and institutionally diverse cohort of award-holders.

The Academy is among the first handful of organisations globally, only the second research funder in the UK, and the first research funding body for the humanities, to trial a new two-stage method of awarding research grants. Applicants are still required to pass a high-quality threshold, which is assessed by expert academics in a similar way to the long-established peer review process, to become eligible for receiving Small Research Grant funding. Grants are then randomly allocated to those who pass the threshold.

The three-year trial, announced in September 2022, is being rolled out for the Academy’s popular Small Research Grants scheme, which awards up to £10,000 for innovative research projects in the humanities and social sciences.

Key findings from early results from the trial’s first year, consisting of two rounds, include:

  • Successful candidates came from a diverse spectrum of 93 institutions. Successful candidates were based at institutions such as the University of Abertay, Dundee, the Alan Turing Institute, and the Union Theological College, Belfast, marking the first time that researchers from these institutions have ever received awards under the Small Research Grants scheme
  • A notable increase in candidates from ‘Black, Asian, and Other ethnic backgrounds’ - applicants who declared their ethnic background against this category accounted for over 27% of successful applicants across the two rounds compared to 18% in the previous iteration
  • A rise in success rates for candidates from Scotland and Northern Ireland, surpassing their respective proportions of the UK population
  • 1,702 applications were assessed in the two initial rounds of the trial, a notable 32% increase from the preceding year of Small Research Grants which followed the traditional application process.

The trial is set to continue over the next two years, consisting in total of six rounds over three years. While early results are promising, future trial rounds may yield a different set of results.

The Academy is working with internationally-recognised experts Philip Clarke and Adrian Barnett to assess the findings. Following the trial’s completion, the Academy will share a full analysis of the long-term value and effectiveness of this method, as well as its impacts on grant outcomes.

The latest round of British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grants – the third to trial partially randomised allocation – is now open for applications.

Professor Simon Swain, the British Academy’s Vice-President for Research and Higher Education Policy, said: 

“While a full evaluation is underway to determine the long-term impacts of this method for applicants, award-holders and assessors, we were keen to share the early findings given the level of interest in this innovative approach. The increase in successful applications from historically underrepresented ethnic backgrounds and those based in Scotland and Northern Ireland, along with broader institutional representation, suggests that awarding grants in this way could lead to more diverse cohorts of Small Research Grant-holders.  It will be interesting to see whether any sustainable trends emerge, something we hope for but is not a given, due to the nature of randomisation.

“The Academy is proud to lead the way in the UK research sector in trialling this exciting and new method of grant allocation to a long-established and successful scheme. We hope that the findings will spark interest and conversations among fellow funders and research organisations who might consider adopting innovative new methods such as this which can reduce administrative burdens on assessors and applicants alike.”

Dr Alex Lewis, Director of Research at the British Academy, said:

“One year into this trial, this snapshot of early results brings the potential benefits of this innovative method into sharp focus. It is hugely motivating to see that this actionable change to a process could open up research funding to those who have been previously underrepresented, and to researchers from a wider spread of research institutions than in past years – potentially increasing equity of access across the board. It is clear that this trial is strongly in line with our strategic aims to open up the Academy and mobilise our disciplines for the benefit of everyone – we look forward to sharing the results with the research community as the trial continues”.

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