Research to improve UK economic productivity

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Apply to do research that seeks to transform UK productivity.

To apply, you must be from a UK-based research organisation eligible for ESRC funding.

Your project must be multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary or both.

Your project’s total economic cost can be between £1 million and £2 million. We will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

Funding will last 3 years, starting in April 2022.

Who can apply

Principal investigators must be based at a UK research organisation eligible for ESRC funding.

Find out who can apply for funding.

Proposals can also include:

  • eligible international co-investigators
  • co-investigators from UK business, policy or civil society
  • public sector research establishments (PSREs).

Your proposal must be primarily social science. It must be multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary or both.

Standard ESRC eligibility rules apply. Read more about individual and institutional eligibility in the ESRC research funding guide.

What we're looking for

This funding opportunity is part of the ESRC’s strategic priority of significantly extending the understanding of productivity in the UK and finding ways to to improve it. The ESRC is looking to fund between four and six projects that add to the portfolio of ongoing productivity research funded by the Strategic Priorities Fund.

Projects will be funded between £1 million and £2 million at 100% fEC (ESRC funding at 80%).

Projects should be multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary or both, providing clear evidence of an ability to generate impact and address currently under-researched themes.

Areas that the ESRC’s expert advisory group identified as particularly under-researched in relation to improving UK productivity are:

  • diversity
  • net zero and the green economy
  • financial markets.

This list is not exhaustive and applications are welcome in other areas that have the potential to improve UK productivity. The ESRC would welcome proposals that explore productivity through different and new lenses not covered by existing research projects.

Diversity and productivity

We are interested in proposals looking at issues of diversity and productivity. Examples might include:

  • barriers to under-represented groups accessing education, training, work experience, social networks and social capital before they enter employment
  • barriers to advancement within firms that affect the productivity of the individual and the firm
  • the impact of reducing or eliminating these barriers.

In addition, barriers to funding or participating in innovation for under-represented groups could also be considered, as existing research on this has not focused on the UK.

Projects might also consider how diverse teams and workplaces impact firm performance.

Net zero, the green economy and productivity

We are interested in research that explores how the shift to a net zero economy impacts productivity, not just on a UK-wide basis but with regard also given to regional investment, skills and physical capital.

The pressing issues ESRC has identified as under-researched include:

  • human capital and skills retraining to ensure a just transition to the green economy
  • the infrastructural needs of the regions to meet net zero aims.

Projects may also consider the trade-off between productivity and de-carbonisation at a sectoral and geographic level.

Financial markets

We are interested in how the risk profiles of institutional and other investors impact investment in innovation and productivity improvements, including the impact of changes to these profiles over time.

The changing demographics in the UK, most notably the ageing population, and closure of defined benefit pension funds may result in institutional investors seeking assets that provide reliable returns rather than high-risk, high-yield investments.

The impact remains to be seen on access to capital for emerging or innovative industries; research could focus on how institutional investment portfolios affect access to capital for new or expanding businesses. Conversely, research could also look at the flow of “investible” firms and their characteristics.

Alternative ideas

As already stated, the above list is not exhaustive, and ESRC welcomes proposals in other areas, as long as they complement and do not duplicate current productivity investments.

Overall requirements

Proposals should seek to work proactively with policymakers and businesses, focusing efforts on making tangible, real-world impact to productivity in the UK.

ESRC welcomes any methodological approach, whether quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods in nature.

Proposals should seek to complement the current portfolio of productivity research and not overlap with the themes of ongoing ESRC productivity and other investments.

Read the:

ESRC will not fund:

  • research that duplicates ongoing research
  • proposals that are deemed to be less than 50% social science
  • PhD studentships
  • proposals that focus solely on the impact of COVID-19.

Applicants should aim to start from April 2022 and last up to three years (36 months).

How to apply

You must apply using the Joint Electronic Submission system (Je-S).

To be able to do this your host organisation must be registered for Je-S, and you must hold a Je-S account. If you are unsure about this, you should contact your research organisation’s research office for further guidance.

For guidance on how to complete your application, please refer to the Je-S guidance for applicants (PDF, 257KB).

When applying select ‘New document’, then:

  • council: ESRC
  • document type: standard proposal
  • scheme: research grants
  • call/type/mode: Productivity Programme 2021/22

Mandatory attachments with the application include:

  • case for support
  • justification of resources
  • data management plan (for grants planning to generate data)
  • CV or CVs.

Other optional attachments should be included where necessary. Please see the Je-S guidance attachment.

Proposals will need to show 100% of the full economic cost of the proposed research, with ESRC covering 80% of the costs.

For help and advice on costings and writing your proposal please contact your research office in the first instance, allowing sufficient time for your organisation’s submission process.

How we will assess your application

Proposals will be reviewed by a pool of experts covering a range of relevant disciplinary areas.

You can nominate up to two academic and two non-academic reviewers. We invite only one to assess your research proposal and may decide not to approach any of your nominated reviewers.

Reviewers are invited to assess each proposal based on their individual merit.

If a proposal meets the standard ESRC minimum quality threshold, the principal investigator is given the opportunity to respond to the reviewers’ comments.

Proposals are then assessed by a specially convened expert commissioning panel, taking into consideration the scores and comments of the reviewers. The panel includes non-academic experts.

The panel evaluates the proposals on their individual merits, in addition to providing a comparative assessment of all the proposals. The panel will make a final funding recommendation to the ESRC.

The ESRC productivity executive board will make a strategic decision on the proposals to support, within proposals rated highly against the assessment criteria outlined below. Funded grants are considered as part of a portfolio of awards.

Assessment criteria

All proposals will be assessed using the standard ESRC peer reviewer scoring system against the following assessment criteria.

Fit the scope of the opportunity

Proposals must fit strategically with the overall aims of the ESRC’s productivity investment. This will include explaining how the proposal’s activity is aligned with the requirements of the funding opportunity.

The proposal is situated within the wider research context.

The proposal adds value to the existing research landscape.

The project takes place within the timeframe required.

Research excellence and scientific impact

A compelling plan for new research that aims to be internationally excellent and breaks new ground in understanding and addressing productivity.

Track record of academic excellence, incorporating expertise from a wide range of disciplines and methodologies.

Clearly described and justified research methods.

Clearly described and justified data management and access plans that identify risks to, and mitigations for, accessing and sharing data.

Plans for new research with the potential to generate new knowledge and lead to new insights on under researched themes.

Plans should not overlap with productivity research funded by the ESRC.

Outcomes, impact and engagement

Clear proposals for generating impact underpinned by a thorough understanding of the principles and practices of effective knowledge exchange and impact generation.

Evidence of well thought out and realistic plans for engagement and knowledge exchange, that maximise opportunities for academic, societal, economic and user impact.

The proposal sets out clear, measurable and achievable outcomes that demonstrate evidence of the research’s planned impact, which goes beyond a list of outputs.

The project has practical outcomes, a policy impact or both.

Clear commitment to work constructively and proactively with other grant holders from this funding opportunity and investments in productivity already funded by ESRC in order to maximise the impact of the portfolio as a whole.

Value for money

Sufficient detail and justification of the costs of the project in the justification of resources attachment.

Funds requested are essential for the work.

The importance and scientific potential justify funding on the scale requested.

Clear allocation of duties and responsibilities, if the proposal has more than one investigator.

The proposal represents good value for money.

Commitment to work constructively and proactively with investment funders and supporters.

Declaration on research assessment

UKRI recognises the relationship between research assessment and research integrity, and supports the San Francisco declaration on research assessment (DORA).

Contact details

Ask a question about this funding opportunity

Email: productivity@esrc.ukri.org

Ask a question about applying through Je-S

Any queries regarding the submission of proposals through Je-S should be directed to the Je-S helpdesk:

The helpdesk is staffed Monday to Thursday 08:30 to 17:00 and Fridays 08:30 to 16:30 (excluding bank holidays and other holidays).

Additional info

The Strategic Priorities Fund is a £830 million investment in multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research. Its key aims are to:

  • increase high-quality multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research and innovation
  • ensure UKRI investment links up effectively with government research and innovation priorities
  • respond to strategic priorities and opportunities.

In 2019, the ESRC received £32.4 million from the Strategic Priorities Fund to tackle the productivity puzzle, one of the most important issues for the UK economy.

The Productivity Institute is one of the largest ever investments made by ESRC and productivity remains one of its top priorities.

Raising productivity is a national priority for the UK and is a key means of achieving a range of social and economic ends, including:

  • raising incomes
  • generating sustainable economic growth
  • improving the effectiveness of the public and third sectors.

However, UK productivity levels have been poor by international standards and have stagnated in recent years.

The initial funding opportunity for the Productivity Institute Programme saw the funding in 2020 of The Productivity Institute at Alliance Manchester Business School for £26 million, bringing together world-leading experts from a range of disciplines to work directly with policymakers and businesses in tackling the productivity puzzle.

The ESRC also funded the Programme on Innovation and Diffusion at LSE, a £5 million programme focusing on the generation of new ideas and their diffusion across the economy, and a collection of investments on Management Practices and Employee Engagement, the PrOPEL Hub and the Productivity Insights Network.

There remains additional funding of £10 million available to tackle thematic areas not covered by the research agendas of The Productivity Institute or the Programme on Innovation and Diffusion.

Supporting documents

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