Thanks to a query from a reader off the blog and a resulting request from me, our blog-friend microfool pointed us to some data. Since I don't like Tables, and the figure on the excel file stinks, here is a different graphical depiction:
The red trace depicts success rates from 1962 to 2008 for R01 equivalents (R01, R23, R29, R37). Note that they are not broken down by experienced/new investigators status, nor are new applications distinguished from competing continuation applications. The blue line shows total number of applications reviewed...which may or may not be of interest to you. [update 7/12/12: I forgot to mention that the data in the 60s are listed as "estimated" success rates.]
The bottom line here is that looking at the actual numbers can be handy when playing the latest round of "We had it tougher than you did" at the w(h)ine and cheese hour after departmental seminar. Success rates end at an unusually low point...and these numbers stop in 2008. We're seeing 15% for R01s (only) in FY2011.
Things are worse than they've ever been and these dismal patterns have bee sustained for much longer. If we look at the ~30% success rates that ruled the day from 1980-2003, the divergence from the trend from about 1989 to 1996 was interrupted in the middle and, of course, saw steady improvement in the latter half. The badness that started in FY2004 has been 8 unrelieved Fiscal Years and shows no sign of abatement. Plus, the nadir (to date) is much lower.
Anyone who tries to tell you they had it as hard or harder at any time in the past versus now is high as a kite. Period.
Now, of course, it IS true that someone may have had it more difficult in the past than they do now, simply because it has always been harder for the inexperienced PIs to win their funding.
sourceAs we know from prior posts, career-stage differences matter a LOT. In the 80s when the overall success rate was 30%, you can see that newcomers were at about 20% and established investigators were enjoying at least a 17%age point advantage (I think these data also conflate competing continuation with new applications so there's another important factor buried in the "Experienced" trace.) Nevertheless, since the Experienced/New gap was similar from 1980 to 2006, we can probably assume it held true prior to that interval as well.