The state of R01 funding and how we got here

A snippet from Paula Stephan’s How Economics Shapes Sciencep. 141-143, Harvard University Press, 2012:

“The NIH Doubling: A Cautionary Tale”

It is tempting to assume that money is the answer to many of the problems that plague peer review and, more generally, the university research enterprise…

But anyone who thinks so should be careful what they wish for. The doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2002 ushered in a host of problems…

Faculty were spending more time submitting and reviewing grants. Although early in this century 60 percent of all funded R01 proposals were awarded the first time they were submitted, by the end of the decade only 30 percent were awarded the first time… [T]here is little evidence that the increase translated into permanent jobs for new PhDs, as had been the case in the 1950’s and 1960’s when government support for research expanded.

It is also not clear that the doubling resulted in the United States being relatively more productive, at least as measured by publications…

A major cause of this seeming paradox was the response of universities to the doubling. Some universities saw the doubling as an opportunity to move into a new “league” and establish a program of “excellence”…

Universities used philanthropic, local, and state resources as well as debt to finance the expansion. The hired additional faculty and research scientists, many in soft-money positions…

Not surprisingly, the number of applications for new and competing research projects grew. In 1998, the NIH received slightly over 24,240 applications for R01 awards; by the end of the doubling in 2003, it received 29,573. By 2009, long after the doubling had ended, it received 27,365. Success rates, which were over 30 percent at the beginning of the doubling, fell to 20 percent by 2006. By 2009, they had “rebounded” to 22.2 percent.

One reason for the decline in success rates was the substantial growth in budgets accompanying the proposed research: in 1998, the average annual budget of a typical grant was $247,000; by 2009, it had grown to $388,000. Several factors contributed to the increase: first, more faculty were on soft-money positions and thus writing off a larger proportion of their salary on grants. Second, the cost of equipment and supplies grew considerable during the period… the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index increased by 29 percent between 2000 and 2007; the Consumer Price index, by comparison, rose by 20 percent. Third, tuition for graduate students (which is included in grants) was increasing. The increase provided a way for universities to get more federal funds…

The NIH chose to devote a smaller percentage of its budget to R01 grants, opting instead to put funds into large project grants as well as a portion of the budget into the Roadmap initiative… In 2001, 53 percent of the funding for new awards went to R01 grants; by 2006, R01’s received only 45.1 percent of the funding for new awards. The percentage had slightly increased by 2010 and stood at 47.4 percent.

Some of the new grants during the doubling went to researchers who had heretofore not received NIH funds. But the vast majority of new grants went to established researchers: the percentage of investigators who had more than one R01 grant grew by one-third during the doubling, going from 22 percent to 29 percent. The number of first-time investigators grew by less than 10 percent.

Young researchers were at a disadvantage competing against more seasoned researchers who had better preliminary data and more grantsmanship expertise; at every submission stage, the success rates of new investigators were lower than those for established researchers submitting a proposal for a new lines of research… the increased number of grants for experienced investigators and minimal growth in grants for first-time investigators resulted in a dramatic change in the age distribution of PIs. In 1998, less than a third of awardees were over 50 years old: almost 25 percent were under 40. By 2010, almost 46 percent were over 50, and less than 18 percent were under 40. More than 28 percent were over 55 years old.

One response of the biomedical community was to lobby (unsuccessfully) for more funds.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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