New Investigator Data trends

Sep 11 2009 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

Occasional commenter microfool has pointed to a very interesting powerpoint slideset in a comment over at MWE&G. The comment referred specifically to an observation from writedit that NHLBI is planning to phase out special, more lenient funding line considerations for those New Investigators who are not Early Stage Investigators* in 2010. The discussion then landed on the distinction between ESI and New Investigators in NIH-speak and microfool brought some data to the discussion.

You can see hints of this unintended consequence on slide 11 of this slide deck where we see nice little blips in ages of First Time Investigators at ages 60, 66, 72, and 87.

Let's take a look...

My read of these data seems to falsify my prior assertion that the New Investigators being funded are disproportionately the technically-qualifying, established investigators who did not happen to have prior NIH funds.

Funny, I noticed this trend after about two rounds of study section. Namely that the New Investigator pool included many quite-senior investigators who had enjoyed quite substantial support from nonNIH sources in their careers. Surprise, surprise, proposals from these "New Investigators" did better than did those of recently transitioned New Investigators. I still find it mind-boggling what properties of the NIH grant review / award system seem obvious to applicants and study section reviewers and yet is a "surprise" to the people who actually hold the raw data that would allow them to perform definitive analyses.

Slide 11 [source]

This graph certainly questions the generality of my subjective impression. Of course, this depends on a couple of assumptions. First, that the "First Time Investigator" designation on this particular slide set from the NIH is equal to the "New Investigator" designation of application checkbox fame. This latter was only started around 1999 (see slide 12 of the powerpoint file) so there may be a decent reason that the NIH uses another term when talking about data that predate this checkbox designation. Second, the data are grouped by age and we must therefore do some highly subjective speculating about how old investigators might be before receiving some sort of substantial funding. It would be very strange to me, for example, if a 60 year old investigator were competitive for NIH R01/equivalent research funding without some sort of prior major research support. Likewise it would not be typical for a 35 yr old investigator who is competitive for NIH funding to have had a major research award from another source.
So I could still be right, there is a considerable amount of area under the curve after about 40 years of age. And although it is not typical by any means, yes there are some lucky individuals who manage to secure substantial research funding in their mid 30s. Nevertheless, these data might also reflect the historical funding picture for what we might think of as genuinely n00b PIs as being slightly less dismal than I have been assuming.
I enjoyed a few more of the graphs in the ppt file.
Slide 12: the demonstration of the R03 and R21 mechs being used to replace the R29 as the "starter award" for n00bs- despite the termination of the R29 specifically to try to dismantle the "starter award" trend.
Slide 17: Interesting to review the success rate changes for established investigators over the past three down-cycles (early 80s, late 80s-early 90s, present one starting about 2004). Also interesting to consider that those that were experienced as of the early 80s were in a mindset that about 38% success rate for applications kinda sucked. Puts their present-day attitudes about what is wrong with grant review into context, does it not?
Slide 28: Median number of years to complete a biomedical doctorate was 6 in 1980, increased to 7 by 1995 and now sits north of 6.5 as of 2005.
Slide 29: Documents the long sustained slide from 1970 to 2006 in the percentage of medical school faculty which are "new". The dramatic drop (~6.5% to ~3% new) from 2004 to 2006 makes you really wonder how this trend has played out in the past three years.
Slide 31: The average age of first Assistant Professor appointment for PhD's has gone from 32 in 1970 to 38.5 in 2006. Compare with Slide 28 for age of completion of doctorates. A four year differential in 1980 versus an eight year differential in 2005.
*An initial version of this post failed to make this distinction accurately

10 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    Another interesting data set is at
    which shows the distribution of PIs year by year from 1980 through 2006. It doesn't show new investigators, but we can draw some interesting conclusions from this distribution and its annual changes, and from the differences between PIs and all med-school faculty (which is shown).
    IMHO, this whole issue of the aging of the NIH funded population has little or nothing to do with anything NIH is doing. It's really just that most of the NIH PIs are baby boomers and baby boomers age each year. In 1980, the modal age of NIH PIs was 37 (1980-37=1943), and it grows by a year or two every year. With all these highly experienced investigators, there's little room for anyone else.

  • anon says:

    no wonder I feel so damned young having a lab at 31!

  • expat postdoc says:

    no wonder i feel so damned young having a badass group with tons of € at 33. nih money here i come!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Hyp: Our PI readers are disproportionally those who landed their appointments on the young side.

  • ScienceWoman says:

    I'll add some anecdata to support your hypothesis. But a quasi-scientific poll on your blog would be a great way to test it more thoroughly. All you need is one question "If you are PI, at what age did you earn your t-t appt?" Then compare to the median age reported elsewhere.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    "If you are PI, at what age did you earn your t-t appt?"
    RO1 at 36.

  • Marcus Adair says:

    Ahahaha, "quasi scientific". What a lovely what to say completely unscientific at all (and borderline useless).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    IMHO, this whole issue of the aging of the NIH funded population has little or nothing to do with anything NIH is doing. It's really just that most of the NIH PIs are baby boomers and baby boomers age each year.
    I totally agree that there is a huge Boomer Generation effect at work. (I find the NAP "Bridges to Independence...." report figure in that post to be more intuitive than the workup you linked)
    This does not, however, leave the NIH blameless. Like affiliating with like is exactly the problem that is addressed with diversity in grant review. If they just let the natural process proceed unmolested, their research funds would be concentrated even more heavily on the US coasts and more concentrated in a smaller subset of Universities. The NIH works actively against this (under Congressional mandate I believe, but still..).
    So they could if they chose work actively against Boomer hegemony. There is an argument to be made that the current enthusiasm over ESI/NI funding is just such a process.

  • qaz says:

    This does not leave the NIH blameless

    Agreed! Unfortunately, NIH seems to be addressing symptoms rather than causes, which is a poor way to cure a disease.

    So they could if they chose work actively against Boomer hegemony.

    I agree completely. My problem is that rather than addressing the fundamental problem (the d*mn BabyBoomers have been eating our lunch) they are concentrated on a different problem (it's hard to write grants so early grants aren't as good). When the BabyBoomers were 50, they could get away with saying that PIs were just getting older. Now that the BabyBoomers are 70, they can't get away with that anymore, and they're ready to help the newbies. Great, I like helping the newbies, but there's a lost generation in between.
    PS. Thanks for the links back.
    BTW: It would be interesting for the poll to also find out when your readership got their first R01 or NSF equivalent. And where the readership sits in that generational and funding situ.

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