Application and Funding Trends in Fiscal Year 2019

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On December 20, 2019, the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 Link to external web site, was signed into law. The appropriation provides NIGMS with a budget of $2,937,218,000 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, a 2.2% increase over the FY 2019 appropriation. With this increased budget, NIGMS is committed to providing taxpayers with the best possible returns on their investments in fundamental biomedical research [PDF]. As part of this commitment to stewardship [PDF], we regularly monitor trends in our funding portfolio.

NIGMS maintains a diversified investment portfolio, supporting a wide range of research topics and investigators. Recent NIGMS and NIH programs and policies aim to increase the number of different investigators funded, and to maintain researchers’ funding stability over time. Consistent with our focus on supporting a broad group of investigators, we monitor two statistics that describe our investigator pool.

One statistic that captures investigators’ success with obtaining funding is the cumulative investigator rate. This value represents 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 depicts the cumulative investigator rate (gray line) for NIGMS R01 and R35 applicants, from FY 2008 to FY 2019. In FY 2019, the cumulative investigator rate (41.2%) increased for the sixth consecutive year. This rise comes as a result of a decreasing number of applicants (blue line) and an increasing number of awardees (green line). Budget increases over these years have contributed to this trend.

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

Figure 1. Number of NIGMS R01/R35 Applicants, Awardees, and Cumulative Investigator Rates, FY 2008-2019. The number of investigators who had been actively seeking NIGMS R01 and R35 support in the indicated fiscal year or in the previous 4 fiscal years (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) increased from FY 2008 to FY 2017 but has decreased in FYs 2018 and 2019. The NIGMS R01 and R35 awardee counts (green squares, solid line; left axis) have increased over the past 6 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.

Another important investigator-level statistic focuses on early-stage investigators (ESIs), who are essential to the continued success of the scientific enterprise. Figure 2 illustrates the yearly number of ESIs receiving their first competing major research project grant (RPG) from NIGMS. ESI numbers have steadily increased since FY 2013, with peak numbers in the last 3 fiscal years. In FY 2019, NIGMS funded the first major competing RPG of 229 ESIs. Two factors enabling this rise include the ESI funding opportunity of the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) R35 program, and the Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI) policies prioritizing ESI applications with meritorious scores. Nearly two-thirds of all new ESI awards given in FY 2019 were through the MIRA program.

NIGMS Competing R01/R35/DP2 ESI Awardees

Figure 2. Number of NIGMS Competing R01/R35/DP2 ESI Awardees, FY 2009-2019. The yearly number of unique R01, R35, and DP2 ESIs (blue bars) receiving their first major (competing) NIH RPG from NIGMS has increased since FY 2013, apart from a small decrease in FY 2018. This increase is largely due the introduction of the MIRA program in FY 2016. Numbers from FY 2019 onward reflect NIH’s updated definitions of ESI-eligible applications as defined by the NGRI.

Investigator-level trends in FY 2019 indicate an increasingly favorable funding environment for scientists, with a higher cumulative investigator rate overall and an emphasis on funding more ESIs. Turning to grant-level statistics, we also see this trend reflected in the number of research grants supported. 

NIGMS also annually measures the application-level success rate [PDF], or the number of applications funded divided by the number of unique project proposals received. Figure 3 depicts the success rate for competing RPGs from FY 2008 to FY 2019. Similar to the R01/R35 cumulative investigator rate, the RPG success rate (32.6%; gray line) increased in FY 2019. As with numbers of investigators, the number of competing RPG applications decreased while the number of funded competing RPGs increased. A decrease in applications is expected when success rates are high, since applicants who are funded are less likely to submit additional proposals. In addition, the MIRA program limits the number of applications an investigator can submit and we would thus also expect to see a decrease in applications as that program expands.

As illustrated, changes in success rates are a function of both the number of competing applications (blue line, Figure 3) and the number of awards (green line). The number of competing grants awarded is affected by our funding policies, budget, and existing commitments to active (noncompeting) grants.

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 2008-2019. NIGMS RPG applications (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) decreased from FY 2018 to FY 2019. Meanwhile, NIGMS-funded competing RPGs (green squares, solid line; left axis) increased from FY 2018 to FY 2019. As a result, the NIGMS RPG success rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis) increased from FY 2018.

As mentioned in our previous funding trends posts, we do not use a 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 4 and 5.

In FY 2019, approximately 50% of applications that scored at the 29th percentile were funded (Figure 4). In FY 2018, this 50/50 point was at the 26th percentile. An elevated section of the curve between approximately the 24th and 38th percentiles indicates that a slightly larger proportion of applications in this range received funding as compared to prior years. Several factors contribute to this discontinuity, including programmatic decisions to fund several grants in this range with a limited number of years or budget. As in prior years, 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.

NIGMS Competing R01 Funding Rates by Percentile

Figure 4. Percentage of Applications Funded Within Each Percentile for NIGMS Competing R01 Applications, FY 2015-2019. 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 2019 (solid yellow line) is near the 29th percentile, as compared with the 26th in FY 2018 (dashed gray line).

Figure 5 further illustrates scoring and award distributions for FY 2019. Applications were roughly evenly distributed across percentiles, and a wide range of application percentiles were funded. MIRA applications and grants 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 2019

Figure 5. Funding Distribution of NIGMS Competing R01 Applications by Percentile, FY 2019. Funded grants (solid green bars) generally follow the funding curve pattern shown in Figure 4, with unfunded applications (striped bars) constituting the remainder of the application percentiles.

Overall, funding trends in FY 2019 illustrate the effect of budget increases and investigator-focused policies and programs, all aimed at creating a rich and stable research environment. 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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