NIH Funding Rates

For those of you not in the biomedical sciences, you may not be aware of the coming crises. Right now aspiring postdocs and new independent investigators are involved in a war of attrition when it comes to funding.

How did this happen?

Well as the NIH budget grew in the 1990s, PIs simply used the funding to hire more postdocs. Postdoc salaries were (and are) obscenely low and thus many Americans refused to enter science. However, the supply of potential postdocs was (and is) high due to the large number of foreigners in science. This is the reason that much of the scientific establishment in the US is populated by non-Americans.

To reiterate this fact, there are many foreigners in science, not because Americans are science illiterate, but because the life of a scientist is worse (in terms of funding and resources) everywhere else. As long as this disparity exists between the US and the rest of the world, we foreign scientists will continue to come. (Yes I'm Canadian. And although being a postdoc in the US is rough, I stand a better chance here than returning home.)

So the result? As the government has refused to increase the NIH budget, the crop of postdocs hired in the 90s is starting to mature. These scientists are entering the job market and competing for NIH funding. Right now both areas are oversaturated. I heard a rumor that 600 applicants applied for one job posting at Rockefeller U. two years ago. In terms of grants, it is increasingly harder to get your R01 (NIH basic research grant for PIs) funded.

Here are some stats from a recent commentary in Cell:

In 2000, NIH reviewed 44,000 grant applications of which 32,000 were handled by CSR [Center for Scientific Review]. But by 2005, the total number had grown to 73,000 with 52,000 of these being handled by CSR. As more investigators submit R01 grants (R01 applications from new investigators jumped from 9,595 in 2001 to 18,047 in 2004) and each investigator submits, on average, more grant applications, the number of R01s awarded by NIH has gone down slightly. These factors combined have sent success rates for grant applications plummeting.


How bad is it? I know of one PI who published papers in Science, Cell, Current Biology and Nature Cell Biology, yet still did not get his R01 renewed on it's first try (it did on the second try). I've heard of other labs closing, and many younger PIs struggling to get their first grant.

As it becomes harder to get research funded, PIs are submitting more grants. Grants are going to projects that involve lower levels of risk, and many successful grants need more than just promising results; they need published findings. Think about it, you need to publish your big findings before you can find the money to pay for the research. That's fine if you are some big shot, you just need to use funding from previous grants to fund preliminary findings to justify new grants. But if you are a young PI, starting his own lab? Most PIs don't get much financial support from their institutions, and so these guys are in a bind.

So what are the solutions?
- The obvious solution is more money. But this is only a temporary solution. If more money is thrown in the system as is, all the senior people will get funded and use the money to hire even more (mostly foreign) postdocs. When these postdocs mature into PIs, the problem will be magnified.
- More money for junior faculty. This would give younger PIs a chance. In fact the NIH has started to reallocate more money for this type of funding.
- Raise the postdoc pay. The NIH basically sets the guidelines for postdoc pay. Right now postdocs are paid artificially low due to the high supply of foreign postdocs. The solution is not to bar foreign scientists, but increase the salaries. Fewer postdocs will cause the supply of young researchers to stabilize over the next decades.
- Encourage lifelong postdocs. Why don't we have this? The current model: you can only remain a postdoc for 4-8 years, then you either find your own job as a PI or instructor, or you leave academia. But why? Because the NIH and the system refuses to pay postdocs a living wage. Having permanent postdocs would fix many of these problems, by easing competition for PI positions and by providing increased security. In addition increasing postdoc pay and job security, will encourage females to stay in academia. Many females are jumping ship, because postdoc-hood is incompatible with family life and pregnancy. Many male postdocs stay in the academic track because they are supported by their wives who have gone into more flexible, more reliable jobs.

But the creation of lifelong dedicated postdocs could be very beneficial to basic research by encouraging the most talented individuals to join academia instead of heading off to lawschool, medicine or the stock market. The model of lifelong postdoc - isn't that's how most biotechs and big pharma, work? In addition, not every good scientist wants to be in charge of a lab, where duties involve writing endless numbers of grants and attending countless number of meetings. Some people are just made to be at the bench. Why force them to move behind the desk?


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The lifelong postdoc idea is intriguing. One I might consider for myself if I thought I could make a living doing it. I came into grad school rather naive: being a PI has very little appeal to me now.

The lack of funding is putting a lot of pressure on grad students to get awards and training grants so that they essentially become "free" for a few years and their PI can keep affording postdocs.

Isn't this starting to sound like some European systems where junior faculty members are more like glorified post-docs? I wonder what effect that would have.

Raising salaries would still screw junior faculty. There is always a disparity between the haves and have nots and it feeds on itself. Perhaps the best idea would be to have a cap on the amount of funding a senior person could get. That would allow the cash to be spread more evenly.

On a different note, who to cheer for now? I'd say Brazil or Ghana but that screws me in the next round. Damn.

Isn't this starting to sound like some European systems where junior faculty members are more like glorified post-docs? I wonder what effect that would have.

Come on, right now postdocs are abused here. What's the point in "progress" if we can't make life a little more liveable.

And ... you owe me a beer.

I also like the lifelong postdoc idea. I'd be happy with that sort of career, provided that I make enough money to pay off my ridiculously large (and still rising) student loans without having to live in tiny apartments and eat ramen for the rest of my life.

By lazybratsche (not verified) on 22 Jun 2006 #permalink

This is a very interesting idea, life-long postdocs. I remember hearing alot aobut that when I first started grad school, back in 99, but the notion was largely discarded. I never understood why. I'm sure it would appeal to a large portion of the scientific population and it would really help in providing stability to labs over long periods of time. Writing grants is hard work and you've really got to love it to stay competitive. On the other hand, working at the bench is also hard work and you've also got to love it stay competitive. Seeing that it is nearly impossible to do both (and HHMI is only so big) it seems perfectly logical to let people do both in academia. There is also the research associate route -- very similar to life-long postdoc, but I see more and more of these people under pressure to get grants out on a cyclical basis. What exactly is the use of that?

On a related note, as an American postdocing in your country, are you so sure you're better off in the US? Maybe its just McGill but I find postdoc life here to be much better than what many (if not all) of my friends back home are experiencing. Funding opportunities are all over the place and there are good jobs abound both in academia and in the more freedom laced biotech areas. I agree that as little as 3 years ago your statement was true, but today? I'm not so sure...

By Theodore Price (not verified) on 22 Jun 2006 #permalink

I agree that as little as 3 years ago your statement was true, but today?

Yes things in Canada are getting better, funding is increasing and Canada is a much more liveable place than anywhere in the US. However if you want a job as a PI, it helps quite a bit if you're from a "big lab". And there aren't that many big labs up in Canada right now.

I know so many people who have gone through the whole job tour - the top applicants for most of the job postings are from big labs. Those big labs are still in the US. But if the Canadian gov keeps it up, this will soon change.

Re: I know of one PI who published papers in Science, Cell, Current Biology and Nature Cell Biology, yet still did not get his R01 renewed on it's first try (it did on the second try).Oh, my goodness! Are you implying that publishing in these journals automatically should qualify one for a grant? Maybe it should be a "red flag" for research that is more hype or glamour than substance. For technical trivia documented versus a conceptual step forward.Re: More professional post-docsWe are already there. How else can one explain that the first independent R01 grant goes to an average age of over 40?Polly A.

By Polly Anna (not verified) on 22 Jun 2006 #permalink

A colleague and I have been wondering about how much of the increase in NIH funding has funded new investigators(answered elsewhere on this site) or investigators with no current RO1(no current info).

We see senior investigators gaining additional grants that are essentially the same as their current ones. For example and investigator with two RO1s showed me a new application where all the 'preliminary data' had been generated by his current grants. He couldn't tell me what was wrong with just continuing his current grants rather than asking for an additional one. The three grants were indistiguisable to me...

Perhaps there should be a sliding scale with higher priority scores needed for each additional grant--or at least ensure that there is not substantial overlap. It is an open secret that overlap monitoring does not take place.


By Richard Needleman (not verified) on 13 Jul 2006 #permalink

Addendum: This post is looking like the crossouts in my lab book....

To clarify the above post: Did the total number of PIs grow proportionaly to the increase in NIH funds? Or are the rich getting richer?

How much went to Program Projects and other non-RO1 type grants?


By Richard Needleman (not verified) on 13 Jul 2006 #permalink


I'll try to get my hands on the number of postdocs for every year for the past two decades.