The data on the competition for NIH funding

We all know the NIH budget is not keeping pace with demand and that success rates are at historically low levels but what are the actual numbers that reflect the funding climate? NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research Mike Lauer addresses this question in detail in his May 31 Open Mike blog post, “How Many Researchers?

Michael Lauer
Michael Lauer

Using published findings from a workshop held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Kimble et al.) as a starting point, Lauer explores the group’s conclusion that the research community faces two chief problems: “Too many researchers vying for too few dollars; too many postdocs competing for too few faculty positions.”

To examine these issues, Lauer analyzed the number of PIs seeking major independent research awards over time (rather than on a yearly basis to adjust for potential overlap in periods of funding). He and his team found that while the overall number of awardees has remained fairly stable at around 27,500, “the number of unique applicants has increased substantially, from about 60,000 investigators who had applied during the period from 1999 to 2003 to slightly less than 90,000 in who had applied during the period from 2011 to 2015.”

The data for R01s revealed that the number of unique awardees declined by about 5% between 2011 and 2015 while the number of unique R01 applicants substantially increased. Using these two variables, they calculated a “cumulative investigator rate” – the likelihood that unique investigators will be funded over a 5-year window – and found the R01 investigator rate declined from 45% to 34% between 2003 and 2015 (see figure). R21 and P01 awards were also examined.

Figure taken from May 31 Open Mike blog showing cumulative investigator rates for R01s over time
Figure taken from May 31 Open Mike blog showing cumulative investigator rates for R01s over time

Based on his analyses, Lauer concluded:

  • The overall number of unique awardees has remained largely constant, while the number of unique applicants has markedly increased.
  • NIH is supporting fewer unique awardees of investigator-initiated long-term grants such as R01s and P01s but is supporting more unique awardees of short-term grants such as R21s.
  • The number of awardees receiving cooperative agreements, which are often institute-initiated, has increased.

So how is NIH addressing this problem? Lauer cited recommendations from Kimble et al. and other literature as potential solutions: “These efforts include funding opportunity announcements for R35 awards, which focus on programs, rather than highly specific projects; new models for training graduate students and postdoctoral fellows; establishment of an office of workforce diversity; and even what we are doing here, namely drawing attention to numbers of unique investigators and applicants.”

While Lauer acknowledges “the difficulties and challenges brought on by the current hypercompetitive NIH funding environment,” the question of how to address an ever-increasing number of researchers vying for limited dollars remains.