Application and Funding Trends in Fiscal Year 2018


UPDATE: Figure 2 of this post was updated slightly in March 2021 to reflect NIGMS-supported Early Stage Investigator counts more accurately.

On September 28, 2018, the Department of Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Act, 2019 and Continuing Appropriations Act, 2019 was signed into law. The law includes an NIGMS budget of $2,872,780,000 for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019—a 3.1% increase from FY 2018. This budget increase follows a 5.1% rise in funding in FY 2018.

NIGMS is committed to ensuring that taxpayers get the best possible returns on their investments in fundamental biomedical research [PDF, 702KB] . As part of this commitment to stewardship [PDF, 7.89MB], we regularly monitor trends in our funding portfolio.

NIGMS recognizes the value of a diversified investment portfolio and, to this end, supports both a wide variety of research topics, as well as a diverse set of investigators. To monitor our investigator pool, we continually track our “cumulative investigator rate.” This statistic indicates the percentage of investigators who held funding in a given fiscal year relative to those actively seeking funding at some point in that fiscal year or in the previous 4 fiscal years. Figure 1, below, depicts this cumulative investigator rate (gray line) for NIGMS R01 and R35 applicants, from FY 2007 to FY 2018. As illustrated, the cumulative investigator rate has been on the rise since 2015, recovering from a period of high applicant numbers (blue line) but steady awardee volume (green line). In 2018, the cumulative investigator rate (39.7%) increased for the fifth consecutive year. Awardee numbers have been increasing over these 5 years, while applicant numbers have been steady, or—as in FY 2018—slightly declining.

NIGMS Competing R01/R35 Applicants, Awardees, and Cumulative Investigator Rates

Figure 1. Number of NIGMS R01/R35 Applicants, Awardees, and Cumulative Investigator Rates, FY 2007-2018. The number of investigators who had been actively seeking NIGMS R01 and R35 support at some point in the indicated fiscal year or in the previous 4 fiscal years (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) increased steadily from FY 2007 to 2014 but has stabilized more recently and slightly decreased in FY 2018. The NIGMS R01 and R35 awardee counts (green squares, solid line; left axis) have increased over the past 5 years, resulting in a higher cumulative investigator rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis). The cumulative investigator rate indicates the percentage of the applicants seeking NIGMS funding who have it in the year shown. In this and all subsequent figures, grants associated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are not included.

As part of our commitment to maintaining a diverse and vibrant research portfolio, we also emphasize support for early stage investigators (ESIs). As shown in Figure 2, the yearly number of ESIs receiving their first competing NIGMS major research project grant has doubled since 2013. Increases are partly due to the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) R35 program ESI funding opportunity introduced in 2016. The small drop in the yearly number of ESIs funded in FY 2018 relative to 2017 may be due to a leveling off of the ESI applicant pool as more ESIs received funding. Consistent with this, MIRA (R35) and R01 ESI applicant numbers both decreased in 2018 (not pictured)—a drop that mirrors the lower number of applicants across all career stages in 2018 (Figure 1). Additional information on our R35 trends can be found in our recent Feedback Loop post on MIRA awards.

NIGMS Competing R01/R35/DP2 ESI Awardees

Figure 2. Number of NIGMS Competing R01/R35/DP2 ESI Awardees, FY 2009-2018. The yearly number of unique R01, R35, and DP2 ESIs (blue bars) receiving their first major NIH research project grant from NIGMS has increased since 2013, especially after the introduction of the MIRA program in FY 2016.

Considering award rates more traditionally, NIGMS also tracks application success at the grant level, in addition to the investigator level. This metric is reported as the success rate, calculated as the number of applications funded divided by the number of unique project proposals received. Figure 3 depicts the success rate for competing research project grants (RPGs) from FY 2007 to 2018. Overall, the RPG success rate (gray line) follows a pattern similar to the cumulative investigator rate, generally increasing since FY 2013. In FY 2018, the RPG success rate was 29.2%, slightly lower than in FY 2017 (30.7%). This change since 2017 reflects a slight increase in competing applications along with a slight decrease in awards. The increase in applications was largely driven by a new R21 Exploratory Research for Technology Development award. Consistent with this, when only R01s and R35s are considered (Figure 4), success rates were stable in FY 2018 (29.7%), largely due to a decrease in applications.

NIGMS Competing RPG Applications, Funded RPGs, and Success Rates

Figure 3. Number of NIGMS Competing RPG Applications, Funded Competing RPGs, and Success Rates for RPGs, FY 2007-2018. NIGMS RPG applications (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) increased slightly from FY 2017 to 2018. Meanwhile, NIGMS-funded competing RPGs (green squares, solid line; left axis) decreased slightly in FY 2018 relative to FY 2017. As a result, the NIGMS RPG success rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis) decreased slightly when compared with FY 2017.

NIGMS Competing R01/R35 Applications, Funded R01s/R35s, and Success Rates

Figure 4. Number of NIGMS Competing R01/R35 Applications, Funded Competing R01s/R35s, and Success Rates for R01s/R35s, FY 2007-2018. NIGMS R01/R35 applications (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) decreased from FY 2017 to 2018. Meanwhile, NIGMS-funded competing R01s/R35s (green squares, solid line; left axis) decreased to a lower degree over the same time. As a result, the NIGMS R01/R35 success rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis) remained stable when compared with FY 2017 (29.9% in FY 2017 versus 29.7% in FY 2018).

Changes in success rates are a function of both changes in the number of competing applications and in the number of awards. The number of competing grants awarded is affected by our funding policies, budget, and existing commitments to active (noncompeting) grants. As more investigators pursue funding through the MIRA program, we expect a lower number of competing awards, as fewer investigators will apply for and receive multiple concurrent grants. Despite this effect, overall the Institute supported a record number of RPGs (competing plus noncompeting) in FY 2018 (Figure 5).

NIGMS-Funded RPGs, Competing and Noncompeting

Figure 5. Number of NIGMS Competing and Noncompeting RPG Awards, FY 2007-2018. Considering both competing (bottom, hashed blue bars) and noncompeting (top, solid orange bars) RPG awards, NIGMS supported a record number of RPGs in FY 2018. During FY 2017 and 2018, the number of noncompeting RPGs increased from previous years, while competing awards decreased slightly.

As mentioned in our previous funding trends posts, we do not use a strict percentile cutoff (“payline”) to make funding decisions. Instead, we take a variety of factors into account, including peer review scores, summary statements, Institute priorities, overall portfolio diversity, and an applicant’s other research support. As a result, a significant number of applications each year are in the “fundable” range, as shown in the funding plots in Figures 6 and 7. In FY 2018, approximately 50% of applications that scored at the 26th percentile were funded (Figure 6). Additionally, a shallower curve in FY 2018 compared with many previous years reflects a wider “fundable” range for applications.

NIGMS Competing R01 Funding Rates by Percentile

Figure 6. Percentage of Applications Funded Within Each Percentile for Competing NIGMS R01 Applications, FY 2014-2018. Curves are smoothed by averaging application and award counts two points above and below the percentile value shown. The point at which 50% of the applications were funded for FY 2018 (solid gray line) is near the 26th percentile, as compared with the 24th in FY 2017 (dashed orange line) and FY 2016 (dashed green line).

Figure 7 further illustrates scoring and award distributions for FY 2018. Applications were roughly evenly distributed across percentiles, and a wide range of application percentiles were funded. As with last year, a number of well-scoring R01 applications went unfunded, in part due to NIGMS policies on support for research in well-funded laboratories, funding for investigators with substantial unrestricted support, and prioritization for ESI and other at-risk investigators. MIRA awards are not included, but NIGMS carefully monitors this program and communicates our findings through regular Feedback Loop posts.

NIGMS Competing R01 Funding Distribution by Percentile, FY 2018

Figure 7. Funding Distribution of NIGMS Competing R01 Applications by Percentile, FY 2018. Funded grants (solid green bars) generally follow the funding curve pattern shown in Figure 6, with unfunded applications (striped black-and-white bars) constituting the remainder of the overall uniform distribution of application percentiles.

Overall, outcomes in FY 2018 indicate positive trends in funding more investigators and more awards. We will continue to monitor these trends and other data related to the outcomes of our investments in fundamental biomedical research.

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