More data on historical success rates for NIH grants

Jul 11 2012 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

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.

As 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.

12 responses so far

  • IndustryScientist says:

    Thanks for putting this together. Pretty eye-opening to look at.

    There are alternative sources of funding too aside from the NIH - kind of wonder what the overall numbers of getting any type of grant are.

    And I wonder what the average number of grants a PI needs to submit in a given year just to stay afloat? Four? Five? More?

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Depends on where you are and especially on how much of your own salary you must pay. I know a lot of internationally-recognized scientists in my field who run their labs on one or two NIH (or NIH-equivalent) grants.

  • dr_mho says:

    Interesting that the total number of grants seems to have remained similar - about 60% of 10,000 in 1962 and about 20% of 30,000 in 2007. I wonder if this also reflects a conservation of total NIH (inflation adjusted) dollars.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Reduced success rate and a huge drop in purchasing power.

  • Virgil says:

    @Pinko Punko
    Amen to that. The modular budget RO1 has been at $250k for over a decade now. These days many institutes are following the lead of NIGMS and cutting 1 year plus a couple of modules. You ask for 5 year full modular ($1,250,000) and you get 4 years at $200k, which is a 36% budget cut! It almost forces you to go non-modular to get a decent budget.

    Regarding the data (and this is borne out in Sally Rockey's blog post data too), a big factor in success rates is the # of applications, which has skyrocketed recently. They're still giving out roughtly the same amount of grants, it's just that now twice as many applications are coming in the door. Whether this is due to a bigger applicant pool (glut of PhDs as being discussed in that other thread) or just each person submitting more grants, is not clear. I suspect it's a bit of both.

  • mikka says:

    Factor in inflation (can't find the numbers now, but I remember them being really high for Life sciences) and I'd say that an R01 is less than half of what it used to be.

  • miko says:

    Pretty quiet on the data thread while the groundless assertions still fly on the "you fuckers are whiners" thread.

  • [...] those looking at the increasing numbers of applications being submitted presented in the prior post, you must include some understanding of this inflationary pressure in your [...]

  • drugmonkey says:

    I know miko. I've been releasing squirrels to distract their attention but to no avail....

  • Busy says:

    For what is worth, from the outside, it does look like US based scientists have a much harder time securing funds nowadays.

  • [...] So says DrugMonkey: 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. [...]

  • […] This is fascinating. We've discussed historical funding trends and success rates under NIH extramural grant awards in the past. One post I wrote is highly pertinent: […]

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