Encouraging News for Women Entering Academia in the Biomedical Sciences

A recent analysis by NIGMS staff has uncovered some promising results for women entering academic positions in the biomedical sciences. The study, which published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), found that once men and women receive their first major NIH grant, their funding longevity is similar. The data contradict the common assumption that, across all career stages, women are at a large disadvantage compared to men.

NIGMS Deputy Director Judith H. Greenberg on key findings in the paper.

The results of the analysis should be encouraging for women interested in becoming independent investigators, since the likelihood of sustaining NIH grant support may be better than commonly perceived. You can read the full study, “NIH Funding Longevity by Gender,” Link to external web site in the current edition of PNAS.

Analysis of NIGMS Support of Research Organisms

NIGMS is committed to supporting a wide-ranging portfolio of biomedically relevant fundamental research. As we discussed in a previous Feedback Loop post, we see this approach as the best way to increase our understanding of life. For many years, one important dimension of diversity in our scientific portfolio—the organisms scientists use to conduct their research—was limited by technical considerations. However, recent advances such as the decreasing cost of genome sequencing and the development of the CRISPR system for genetic modification now make it possible to use an expanded range of research organisms.

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Application and Funding Trends in Fiscal Year 2017

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.

We recognize the value of a diversified investment portfolio and approach our research investments in a similar fashion. Sustaining a broad and diverse portfolio of talented investigators is a central goal of the Institute, as a wide variety of research questions can be studied by an investigator pool that comprises many different backgrounds, fields, and skills. To monitor this, we track the “cumulative investigator rate,” which indicates the proportion of unique investigators actively seeking funding who had an NIGMS grant in a given Fiscal Year (FY). As shown in Figure 1, the number of investigators seeking support consistently increased between FY 2006 and 2014, but the number of NIGMS-funded investigators remained relatively unchanged over that same period. As a result, the cumulative investigator rate steadily decreased. Since FY 2014, the cumulative investigator rate has steadily increased, as the number of applicants seeking support has stabilized and the number of investigators receiving support has grown by 14%. Currently, 37.4% of investigators seeking R01/R35 funding from NIGMS received support in FY 2017.

Figure 1. Number of NIGMS R01/R35 Applicants, Awardees, and Cumulative Investigator Rates, FY 2006-2017. The number of investigators actively seeking NIGMS R01 and R35 support (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) increased steadily from FY 2006 to 2014 but has stabilized more recently. These applicants were defined as anyone who submitted a competing NIGMS R01 or R35 application in the fiscal year shown or any of the previous four fiscal years. The NIGMS R01 and R35 awardee counts (green squares, solid line; left axis) remained relatively stable from FY 2006 to 2014 and have increased somewhat over the past three years. As a result, the NIGMS cumulative investigator rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis) declined from FY 2006 to 2014 but has begun to recover since then.

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A Historical Analysis of NIGMS Early Stage Investigators’ Awards and Funding

One question that has been asked about the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) for Early Stage Investigators is how awardees will be affected by the fact that they cannot have additional NIGMS research grants. In response to this question, we reviewed the research project grant (RPG) funding history of all 707 Principal Investigators (PIs) who received an NIGMS R01 as an Early Stage Investigator (ESI) between Fiscal Years 2009 and 2015. The PIs were grouped by Year of PI, which ranges from Year 1 to Year 5 (five years is the typical length of an ESI R01 award). Year 1 is the year in which the PI was awarded his or her initial R01, and Year 2-Year 5 represent the subsequent years. The awards and funding history of each PI were confined to Fiscal Years 2009-2015; thus, all PIs are included in the Year 1 group, while those who received their initial R01 in 2013, for example, would only appear in the Year 1-Year 3 groups.

The distribution of NIGMS awards (including subprojects) for these PIs is depicted below.

Figure 1. Percentage of Principal Investigators by Number of Active NIGMS Awards. Year 1 represents the year of the initial NIGMS R01; Year 2-Year 5 represent the subsequent years. Only Fiscal Years 2009-2015 are included. No PIs had more than three active NIGMS awards in a single year.

Adding up the percentages of PIs with two and three awards, Figure 1 shows that the percentage of PIs with more than one active NIGMS award ranges from 2.8% in Year 1 to 13.9% in Year 5. Continue reading

Stable Success Rates and Other Funding Trends in Fiscal Year 2016

NIGMS is committed to ensuring that taxpayers get the best possible returns on their investments in fundamental biomedical research. As part of an NIH-wide commitment to enhancing stewardship, we regularly monitor trends in the Institute’s funding portfolio.

One of the most commonly cited metrics when discussing grants is success rate, calculated as the number of applications funded divided by the number of applications reviewed. As shown in Figure 1, the success rate for NIGMS research project grants (RPGs) was 29.6% in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, the same as it was in FY 2015. Although we funded a record number of competing RPGs in FY 2016, we also received more applications than in FY 2015, leading to a level success rate. The first applications and grants for the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) (R35) program are included in the FY 2016 RPG counts. The increase in RPG applications in FY 2016 has reversed the downward trend noted in last year’s analysis.

Figure 1. Number of NIGMS Competing RPG Applications, Number of Funded Competing RPGs and Success Rates for RPGs, Fiscal Years 2005-2016. NIGMS RPG applications (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) increased from FY 2015-2016. NIGMS-funded RPGs (green squares, solid line; left axis) also increased from FY 2015-2016. Consequently, the NIGMS RPG success rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis) remained unchanged from FY 2015. The dip in success rate in FY 2013 was due in part to the budget sequester.

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Revisiting the Dependence of Scientific Productivity and Impact on Funding Level

A 2010 analysis by NIGMS and subsequent studies by others (Fortin and Currie, 2013; Gallo et al., 2014; Lauer et al., 2015; Doyle et al., 2015; Cook et al., 2015 Exit icon) have indicated that, on average, larger budgets and labs do not correspond to greater returns on our investment in fundamental science. We have discussed the topic here in A Shared Responsibility and in an iBiology talk Exit icon. In this updated analysis, we assessed measures of the recent productivity and scientific impact of NIGMS grantees as a function of their total NIH funding.

We identified the pool of principal investigators (PIs) who held at least one NIGMS P01 or R01-equivalent grant (R01, R23, R29, R37) in Fiscal Year 2010. We then determined each investigator’s total NIH funding from research project grants (RPGs) or center grants (P20, P30, P50, P60, PL1, U54) for Fiscal Years 2009 to 2011 and averaged it over this 3-year period. Because many center grants are not organized into discrete projects and cores, we associated the contact PI with the entire budget and all publications attributed to the grant. We applied the same methodology to P01s. Thus, all publications citing the support of the center or P01 grant were also attributed to the contact PI, preventing underrepresentation of their productivity relative to their funding levels. Figure 1 shows the distribution of PIs by funding level, with the number of PIs at each funding level shown above each bar.

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Distribution of NIGMS R01 Award Sizes

We have published median and mean direct cost award amounts for R01 grants, but these statistical aggregates can mask variations present in our grant portfolio. In this analysis, we illuminate two major differences in R01 award size distributions: those between single-principal investigator (PI) and multiple-PI (MPI) grants and those between new and competing renewal grants. It is worth noting that the numbers are per award values rather than the total NIGMS support provided to investigators and that award size can also be influenced by NIH-wide policies and NIGMS-specific policies that promote the consideration of multiple factors in making funding decisions.

The first major distinction in NIGMS R01s exists between single-PI and MPI awards. NIH has allowed applications that identify more than one PI since Fiscal Year 2007. Many MPI applications request, and receive, larger amounts of funding than do typical single-PI applications. As shown in Figure 1, single-PI awards have a size peak in the range of $175,000-200,000 in direct costs (funds typically directly associated with the research project rather than overhead costs), while MPI awards tend to have larger budgets and a broader size distribution. MPI awards are, on average, approximately 25% larger for each additional PI (data not shown).

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P01 Outcomes Analysis

As part of our program assessment process, we have analyzed NIGMS program project (P01) grants to improve our understanding of how their outcomes compare with those of other mechanisms.

The most recent NIGMS funding opportunity announcement for P01s states that individual projects “must be clearly interrelated and synergistic so that the research ideas, efforts, and outcomes of the program as a whole will offer a distinct advantage over pursuing the individual projects separately.” From this perspective, we sought to address three major questions:

  • Do P01s achieve synergies above and beyond a collection of separate grants?
  • How do the results from P01s compare with those from R01s?
  • Do certain fields of science need P01s more than others?

To address these questions, we analyzed the outcomes of P01 grants using several different metrics and compared these outcomes to those of two comparator groups: single-principal investigator (PI) R01s and multiple-PI R01s. Since P01s could be considered as a collection of single-PI R01s and one or more cores, we chose single-PI R01s as a comparator group. Because a major facet of P01s is their focus on using collaborative approaches to science, we also wanted to compare their outcomes to another collaboration-focused research grant: multiple-PI R01s. While structurally different from P01s, multiple-PI R01s allow for a comparison between two competing models of funding team science within the NIGMS portfolio.

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Application and Funding Trends

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 Exit icon, provides funding for the Federal Government through September 30. NIGMS has a Fiscal Year 2016 appropriation of $2.512 billion, which is $140 million, or 5.9%, higher than it was in Fiscal Year 2015. With this opportunity to expand NIGMS support for fundamental biomedical research comes a responsibility to make carefully considered investments with taxpayer funds.

Application Trends

One of the most commonly cited metrics when discussing grants is success rate, calculated as the number of applications funded divided by the number of applications received. As shown in Figure 1, the success rate for NIGMS research project grants (RPGs) increased from 24.8% in Fiscal Year 2014 to 29.6% in Fiscal Year 2015. This was due to an increase in the number of funded competing RPGs as well as a decline in the number of competing RPG applications. In contrast, in Fiscal Year 2013, applications increased while awards decreased, leading to a notable decrease in success rate. Overall, we have seen a decrease in RPG applications over the last 2 years, a trend warranting additional investigation.

Figure 1. Number of NIGMS Competing RPG Applications, Funded Competing RPGs and Success Rates for RPGs, Fiscal Years 2004-2015. NIGMS RPG applications (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) decreased from Fiscal Years 2014 to 2015 to a 5-year low. Meanwhile, NIGMS-funded RPGs (green squares, solid line; left axis) increased in Fiscal Year 2015 to a level not seen since Fiscal Year 2007. As a result, the NIGMS RPG success rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis) was the second highest it has been in the past decade.
Figure 1. Number of NIGMS Competing RPG Applications, Funded Competing RPGs and Success Rates for RPGs, Fiscal Years 2004-2015. NIGMS RPG applications (blue circles, dashed line; left axis) decreased from Fiscal Years 2014 to 2015 to a 5-year low. Meanwhile, NIGMS-funded RPGs (green squares, solid line; left axis) increased in Fiscal Year 2015 to a level not seen since Fiscal Year 2007. As a result, the NIGMS RPG success rate (gray triangles, dotted line; right axis) was the second highest it has been in the past decade.

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Analysis of NIGMS Funding Rates for Early Stage Investigators and Non-Early Stage New Investigators

NIH and NIGMS have policies to promote the successful entry of junior investigators into independent biomedical research careers. NIH classifies investigators who have not previously had a major NIH grant into two categories: new investigators (NIs) and early stage investigators (ESIs), a subset of NIs who are within 10 years of completing their terminal research degree or medical residency. The goal of these policies is to support R01-equivalent awards to both of these categories of investigators at success rates (the percentage of new Type 1 R01 applications that were funded) similar to those of established investigators (EIs) who submit new R01 applications.

Given that the NI and ESI policies have been in effect for some time, we wanted to update and extend an analysis of success rates by investigator status performed in 2010 to see if NIGMS has been able to meet these objectives. While we found that the success rates for all NIs were comparable to or greater than that of EIs, our new analysis also revealed that the subset of NIs who completed their terminal research degree at least 10 years ago (non-ES NIs) had consistently lower success rates in obtaining R01s relative to both ESIs and EIs.

We focused our analysis on NIGMS Type 1 R01 applications for Fiscal Years 2011-2014. Figure 1a shows the success rates for EIs and NIs. During the time period analyzed, success rates for both EIs and NIs were comparable. However, when the NIs are separated into ESIs and non-ES NIs, the data show a more nuanced result (Figure 1b). ESIs consistently had higher success rates than either EIs or non-ES NIs when applying for new R01s.

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