Application and Funding Trends in Fiscal Year 2020

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On December 27, 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, was signed into law. The appropriation provides NIGMS with a budget of $2,991,417,000, in Fiscal Year (FY) 2021, a 1.8% increase over the FY 2020 appropriation. With this increased budget, NIGMS is committed to providing taxpayers with the best possible returns on their investments in fundamental biomedical research. As part of this commitment to stewardship, we regularly monitor trends in our funding portfolio.

NIGMS maintains a diversified biomedical research portfolio, supporting a wide range of topics and investigators. NIGMS and NIH programs and policies aim to increase the number of funded investigators and to maintain researchers’ funding stability over time. In this post, we describe NIGMS investigator-level trends for selected R01-equivalent grants as well as overall research project grant (RPG) trends for FY 2020 compared to previous fiscal years.

NIGMS Investigator-Level Trends for Research Grants

In line with our strategic objective of supporting a broad and diverse group of investigators, we consistently monitor two metrics that describe our investigator pool: the number of early stage investigators (ESIs) and the cumulative investigator rate.

Increasing the number of newly supported ESIs is integral to the continued success of the biomedical research enterprise. Figure 1 illustrates the number of ESIs who received their first NIGMS competing RPG each year over the last decade. NIGMS funded the first major RPG of 264 ESIs in FY 2020: 52 investigators received R01 awards, 200 investigators received R35 awards, and 12 investigators received DP2 awards, not including NIH Director’s New Innovator Awards that NIGMS manages on behalf of the NIH Common Fund. The number of supported ESIs has risen almost every year since FY 2013, with three factors promoting this increase. The ESI funding opportunity from the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) R35 program has resulted in an increase in interest and applications from ESIs for the program. In addition, NIGMS has been proactive in implementing NIH-wide Next Generation Researchers Initiative (NGRI) policies that encourage increased support for ESI applications with meritorious scores. Finally, NIGMS has utilized its appropriations increases every year since 2013 to support more investigators. The decrease between FY 2017 and FY 2018 was due in part to the introduction of the MIRA program in FY 2016 and the leveling off of the ESI applicant pool as more ESIs received funding.

ESIs Funded by R01, R35, and DP2 Awards

Figure 1. Number of NIGMS Competing R01, R35, and DP2 ESI Awardees, FY 2011-2020. The number of unique ESIs receiving their first major competing R01 (solid black bars), R35 (blue-striped bars), or DP2 (solid gray bars) award from NIGMS increased by 34 investigators between FY 2019 and FY 2020. Only DP2 awards funded by NIGMS are included. Numbers from FY 2019 onward reflect NIH’s updated definitions of ESI-eligible applications as defined by the NGRI.

The number of funded ESIs in FY 2020 who received R35 awards was the largest to date and a notable increase over the number of investigators supported each year since MIRA’s inception. Later in this post, we illustrate how MIRA grants are becoming an increasingly substantial part of NIGMS’ overall RPG portfolio.

The cumulative investigator rate is another measure of investigators’ success in receiving NIGMS funding. The rate represents the number of investigators who receive funding in a given fiscal year compared to the number of investigators actively seeking funding at some point in that fiscal year or in the previous 4 fiscal years. Figure 2 shows the number of investigators who submitted R01 and/or R35 applications and received awards, as well as the cumulative investigator rate from FY 2009 to FY 2020. In FY 2020, the cumulative investigator rate (42.6%) increased for the seventh consecutive year. The rising rate in FY 2020 over FY 2019 is related to the increase in the number of awardees (164 more awardees in FY 2020 than in FY 2019) compared to the number of applicants in these fiscal years. NIGMS’ budget increase in FY 2020 also contributed to this trend.

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

Figure 2. Number of NIGMS R01/R35 Applicants, Awardees, and Cumulative Investigator Rates, FY 2009-2020. Applicants (blue dashed line with circles; left axis) represent the number of unique investigators who had been actively seeking NIGMS R01 and R35 support in the indicated fiscal year or in the previous 4 fiscal years. A total of 9,695 investigators submitted applications in FY 2020, compared to 9,625 investigators who submitted applications in FY 2019. Awardees (green solid line with squares; left axis) are the number of unique applicants who received NIGMS R01 and R35 support in the indicated fiscal year. NIGMS supported 4,128 awardees in FY 2020, an increase over the 3,964 awardees supported in FY 2019. The cumulative investigator rate (gray dotted line with triangles; right axis) represents the number of funded NIGMS investigators in a given fiscal year divided by the number of investigators actively seeking funding at some point in that fiscal year or in the previous 4 fiscal years. The cumulative investigator rate increased 1.4 percentage points between FY 2019 and FY 2020 (from 41.2% to 42.6%). In this and all subsequent figures, grants associated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are not included.

NIGMS Competing RPG Trends

NIGMS annually measures its application-level success rate, or the number of applications funded relative to the number of distinct applications received. Figure 3 illustrates the number of NIGMS applications and awards and the associated success rates of competing RPGs from FY 2009 to FY 2020. The success rate in FY 2020 was 32.3% and is similar to that of FY 2019 (32.6%). The lower number of applications in FY 2020 is part of a continuing trend in recent fiscal years. This trend is not unexpected given that when success rates are high, investigators who already hold funding are less likely to submit other applications. Additionally, investigators who are supported by MIRA are limited in the number of other applications they can submit to NIGMS. As MIRA becomes an increasingly large percentage of the Institute’s portfolio (details below), the number of applications is expected to continue declining. Changes in the number of awards are affected by NIGMS’ funding policies, budget, and existing commitments to active (noncompeting) awards.

NIGMS Competing RPG Applications, Funded RPGs, and Success Rates

Figure 3. Number of NIGMS Competing RPG Applications, Funded RPGs, and RPG Success Rates, FY 2009-2020. The number of NIGMS RPG applications submitted in the indicated fiscal year is represented by the blue dashed line with circles (left axis). A total of 3,596 applications were submitted in FY 2020, compared to the 3,656 applications submitted in FY 2019. The number of NIGMS-funded competing RPGs in the indicated fiscal year is represented by the green solid line with squares (left axis). NIGMS supported 1,161 competing awards in FY 2020, a slight decrease from 1,192 awards in FY 2019. The NIGMS RPG success rate (gray dotted line with triangles; right axis) is the percentage of reviewed grant applications that received funding. To calculate the success rate, applications for the same project submitted more than once in the same fiscal year are only counted once. The success rate of 32.3% in FY 2020 is similar to that of FY 2019 (32.6%).

Figure 4 illustrates R01 application and award distributions across the percentile range for FY 2020. Applications scoring between the 1st and 41st percentile received funding, with a few exceptions for higher-scoring applications. NIGMS has a longstanding practice of not using a percentile cutoff (“payline”) to make funding decisions. In FY 2020, a number of well-scoring R01 applications went unfunded due to a variety of factors, including peer review concerns reflected in summary statements, NIGMS priorities, the need for overall portfolio diversity, and an applicant’s receipt of other research support (see NIGMS policies on support for research in well-funded laboratories, funding for investigators with substantial unrestricted support, and prioritization for ESIs and other at-risk investigators).

NIGMS Competing R01 Funding Distribution by Percentile, FY 2020

Figure 4. Funding Distribution of NIGMS Competing R01 Applications by Percentile, FY 2020. Applications submitted in FY 2020 were relatively evenly distributed across percentiles. Applications scoring between the 1st and 41st percentile received funding (solid green bars), with a few exceptions for higher-scoring applications. Unfunded applications (black-striped bars) constitute the remainder of applications in the higher percentiles.

Earlier in this post, we stated that the number of ESIs funded each year has been increasing over the past few years, especially the number of ESIs receiving R35 awards. Figure 5 extends the data to include experienced investigators. Together, these data show the trends in all NIGMS R01 and MIRA R35 grants since FY 2015, illustrating the growth in the MIRA program since it began in FY 2016. The representation of MIRA R35 grants relative to R01 awards has steadily increased each year, and in FY 2020 MIRA represented 33% of all funded R01 and R35 projects, an increase from just 7% in the first year of the program. This trend seems to indicate that investigators are increasingly applying to and being funded by MIRA.

NIGMS Trends in R01 / MIRA R35 Awards

Figure 5. Number of NIGMS Competing R01 and MIRA R35 Awards, FY 2015-2020. The number of R01 awards is represented by the blue-striped bars (left axis), while the number of MIRA R35 awards is represented by the orange bars (left axis). NIGMS awarded 2,788 R01 awards and 1,363 MIRA R35 awards in FY 2020. The black dotted line (right axis) represents the share of MIRA R35 awards relative to the overall number of R01 and MIRA R35 awards. The number of MIRA R35 awards has steadily increased each fiscal year. Distinct projects refer to funded core projects (e.g., R01GM999999) in a given fiscal year. Supplements are excluded.

As the percentage of the RPG portfolio made up by MIRA grows, we’ll continue to carefully monitor shifts in application and award patterns and communicate findings through annual funding trends and other Feedback Loop posts.

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