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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First MIRA Awards to New and Early Stage Investigators

UPDATE: The MIRA FOA for early stage investigators has been reissued.

We have begun making grant awards resulting from responses to RFA-GM-16-003 (R35), the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) for New and Early Stage Investigators pilot program. We received 320 applications in areas related to NIGMS’ mission, and they were reviewed by four special emphasis panels organized by the NIH Center for Scientific Review. We anticipate making 93 awards, which is more than we estimated in the funding opportunity announcement (FOA); the corresponding success rate is 29.1%.

The awards will be for a 5-year project period, as is typically the case for NIGMS R01 awards to new and early stage investigators. Most awards will be for the requested and maximum amount of $250,000 in annual direct costs, with an average of $239,000 and median of $250,000. In Fiscal Year 2015, NIGMS R01 awards to new or early stage investigators averaged $209,000 in annual direct costs (median of $198,000) and had a 24.4% success rate. During the same period, all competing NIGMS R01 awards averaged $236,000 in annual direct costs (median of $210,000) and had a 28.8% success rate. Thus, the MIRA pilot program had success rates similar to those of comparable R01 applications and offered some direct financial benefit to this group of applicants. We expect other benefits of the MIRA program, including increased funding stability and research flexibility, reductions in time spent writing and reviewing grant applications and improved distribution of NIGMS funding, will accrue among these investigators and the community at large as implementation of the MIRA program continues.

You can find more information about the awards on NIH RePORTER by entering RFA-GM-16-003 in the FOA field; however, the record of funded grants will not be complete until after the end of Fiscal Year 2016 (September 30). Because the initial budget period of MIRA awards will be offset by existing NIGMS grant support from other mechanisms (e.g., career awards), the first-year budget of a MIRA may be lower than the annual funding level used to calculate the average and median amounts shown above. We plan to post a detailed analysis of MIRAs after we have issued all the awards. We’ve previously posted information on NIGMS R01 award sizes and success rates for new and early stage investigators.

As I mentioned in my last post, we’re planning to reissue the MIRA FOA for early stage investigators in the near future.

You can find additional information about the program on our MIRA web page.

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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First Awards Issued in MIRA Pilot Program

We have begun making grant awards resulting from responses to RFA-GM-16-002 (R35), the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) pilot program. Out of the 179 applications we received, we have so far authorized 123 awards. The median yearly direct costs for these grants is $399,842, and the mean is $405,884. For comparison, the median yearly direct costs for an NIGMS R01 in Fiscal Year 2015 was $210,000, and the mean was $237,254.  On average, the budgets of these MIRAs to established investigators were reduced by 12% relative to the investigators’ recent NIGMS funding history. As described in the funding opportunity announcement (FOA), the budget reductions were in exchange for the benefits of the program: a 5-year award instead of the standard 4-year one, increased flexibility to follow new research directions, increased funding stability and decreased administrative burden. We will use the funds freed up through this trade-off to support other investigators and improve the distribution of NIGMS funding. It will take time for the full benefits of the program to individual investigators and the research community to become clear.

You can find more information about these awards on NIH RePORTER by entering RFA-GM-16-002 in the FOA field; however, the record of funded grants will not be complete until the end of Fiscal Year 2016. Because merging an investigator’s previous funding into a single award presents a variety of complications, in some cases the first-year budget of the MIRA is lower than the eventual funding level will be. This is frequently the case when the principal investigator (PI) was part of multi-PI grants that will be allowed to end before all NIGMS funding for the investigator is put on the MIRA or when the PI had already received funds from NIGMS in the current fiscal year.

We will begin making awards for the new and early stage investigators MIRA (RFA-GM-16-003) after the May 19-20 meeting of the National Advisory General Medical Sciences Council.

You can find additional information about the program on our MIRA web page.

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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MIRA Status and Future Plans

Now that we have completed the review process for Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) applications from the first eligible cohort of established investigators, I would like to update you on the program’s status and plans for its future. I shared this information with our Advisory Council at its recent meeting in January.

Screenshot of video

My update on the MIRA program at the January 2016 Advisory Council meeting begins at 26:06.

The first funding opportunity announcement (FOA) we issued (RFA-GM-16-002) was for established investigators who had either two NIGMS R01s or one NIGMS R01 for more than $400,000 in direct costs. In either case, one grant had to be expiring in 2016 or 2017. Out of the 710 investigators who could have met these criteria, 179 submitted applications, corresponding to 25% of the eligible pool.

Among the eligible investigators, 80% were male and 20% were female. This ratio was unchanged among those who applied, as were the percentages across racial and ethnic groups (Figure 1). Thus, although the demographics of the group of investigators that was eligible for this first FOA were skewed in several ways, the skewing was not exacerbated in those who chose to apply. Continue reading

Improved Success Rate and Other Funding Trends in Fiscal Year 2014

The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 Exit icon, provides funding for the Federal Government through September 30. NIGMS has a Fiscal Year 2015 appropriation of $2.372 billion, which is $13 million, or 0.5%, higher than it was in Fiscal Year 2014.

As I explained in an earlier post, we made a number of adjustments to our portfolio and funding policies last fiscal year in order to bolster our support for investigator-initiated research. Partly because of these changes, the success rate for research project grants (RPGs)—which are primarily R01s—was 25 percent in Fiscal Year 2014. This is 5 percentage points higher than it was in Fiscal Year 2013. Had we not made the funding policy changes, we predicted that the success rate would have remained flat at 20 percent.

Figure 1 shows the number of RPG applications we received and funded, as well as the corresponding success rates, for Fiscal Years 2002-2014.

Figure 1. Number of competing RPG applications assigned to NIGMS (blue line with diamonds, left axis) and number funded (red line with squares, left axis) for Fiscal Years 2002-2014. The success rate (number of applications funded divided by the total number of applications) is shown in the green line with triangles, right axis. Data: Tony Moore.
Figure 1. Number of competing RPG applications assigned to NIGMS (blue line with diamonds, left axis) and number funded (red line with squares, left axis) for Fiscal Years 2002-2014. The success rate (number of applications funded divided by the total number of applications) is shown in the green line with triangles, right axis. Data: Tony Moore.

Moving forward, it will be important to employ strategies that will enable us to at least maintain this success rate. In keeping with this goal, we recently released a financial management plan (no longer available) that continues many of the funding policies we instituted last year. As funds from the retirement of the Protein Structure Initiative come back into the investigator-initiated RPG pool, we’ll be working to ensure that they support a sustained improvement in success rate rather than create a 1-year spike followed by a return to lower rates.

Figures 2 and 3 show data for funding versus the percentile scores of the R01 applications we received. People frequently ask me what NIGMS’ percentile cutoff or “payline” is, but it should be clear from these figures that we do not use a strict percentile score criterion for making funding decisions. Rather, we take a variety of factors into account in addition to the score, including the amount of other support already available to the researcher; the priority of the research area for the Institute’s mission; and the importance of maintaining a broad and diverse portfolio of research topics, approaches and investigators.

Figure 2. Percentage of competing R01 applications funded by NIGMS as a function of percentile scores for Fiscal Years 2010-2014. For Fiscal Year 2014, the success rate for R01 applications was 25.7 percent, and the midpoint of the funding curve was at approximately the 22nd percentile. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 2. Percentage of competing R01 applications funded by NIGMS as a function of percentile scores for Fiscal Years 2010-2014. For Fiscal Year 2014, the success rate for R01 applications was 25.7 percent, and the midpoint of the funding curve was at approximately the 22nd percentile. See more details about the data analysis for Figure 2. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 3. Number of competing R01 applications (solid black bars) assigned to NIGMS and number funded (striped red bars) in Fiscal Year 2014 as a function of percentile scores. Data: Jim Deatherage.
Figure 3. Number of competing R01 applications (solid black bars) assigned to NIGMS and number funded (striped red bars) in Fiscal Year 2014 as a function of percentile scores. See more details about the data analysis for Figure 3. Data: Jim Deatherage.

It’s too early to say what the success rate will be for Fiscal Year 2015 because it can be influenced by a number of factors, as I described last year. However, we’re hopeful that by continuing to adjust our priorities and policies to focus on supporting a broad and diverse portfolio of investigators, we can reverse the trend of falling success rates seen in recent years.

More on My Shared Responsibility Post

Thanks for all of the comments and discussion on my last post. There were many good points and ideas brought up, and these will be very useful as we consider additional policy changes at NIGMS and NIH. I hope these conversations will continue outside of NIH as well.

Several people asked about the current distribution of funding among NIGMS principal investigators (PIs). Here are a few relevant statistics:

  • In terms of the NIH research funding of NIGMS grantees, in Fiscal Year 2013, 5 percent of the PIs had 25 percent of this group’s total NIH direct costs and 20 percent of the PIs had half of it. A similar pattern was recapitulated NIH-wide.
  • NIGMS PIs who had over $500,000 in total NIH direct costs held approximately $400 million in NIGMS funding.
  • The figure below shows the distribution of total NIH direct costs for NIGMS-supported investigators as well as the average number of NIH research grants held by PIs in each range.
Graph representing distribution of NIGMS investigartors' total NIH direct costs for research in FY2013
Figure 1. The distribution of NIGMS investigators’ total NIH direct costs for research in Fiscal Year 2013 (blue bars, left axis). The number below each bar represents the top of the direct cost range for that bin. The average number of NIH research grants held by PIs in each group is also shown (red line with squares, right axis). The direct costs bin ranges were chosen so that the first four bins each included 20 percent of NIGMS investigators.

With regard to changes NIH might make to help re-optimize the biomedical research ecosystem, NIH Director Francis Collins recently formed two NIH-wide working groups to develop possible new policies and programs related to some of the issues that I highlighted in my blog post and that were discussed in the subsequent comments. The first group, chaired by NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey, will explore ways to decrease the age at which investigators reach independence in research. The second, chaired by me, will look at developing more efficient and sustainable funding policies. Once these committees have made their recommendations, Sally plans to set up a group to consider the question of NIH support for faculty salaries.

As I mentioned in my post, we at NIGMS have been working for some time on these issues. We’ll be discussing additional changes and ideas with the community in the coming weeks and months on this blog and in other forums, including our upcoming Advisory Council meeting.