A new post at Rock Talking has responded to queries raised by many, including YHN, about their prior depiction of applicant and application numbers. My skepticism was based on my own myopia, given the types of investigators that I am around and know the best.

This surprised many of us on the Twitters. I don’t think I know of any active scientists who are submitting less than several NIH grant applications per year. If I did know of them I’d be kicking their butts!

This was in response to the following:

First, the total number of these applications has almost doubled—from 25,000 in 1998 to almost 50,000 in 2011 (see figure 3). The average number of applications per applicant has also risen slightly (from 1.3 to 1.5) and that contributes somewhat to the total increase in demand, depicted by the red portion of the bars in figure 3. However, the major contributor to the increased demand is a large growth in the number of applicants—from about 19,000 in 1998 to approximately 32,000 in 2011.

The prior way of looking at applicants merely asked how many submitted at least one application in a given year and was therefore insensitive to a change in rate. An investigator who submitted one grant in any 5 year interval was counted in the denominator only for the year of submission. So if she changed her rate to once every year, nothing was altered in the aggregate stats- it would still be one application per investigator per year. The new post at Rock Talking takes the more realistic step of asking how many investigators there are who have submitted within a 5 year rolling interval.

There were 55,750 applicant PIs in the 5 year interval ending in 2002 and 83,546 in the interval ending in 2012. A 50 percent increase in the number of mouths at the trough. This is a depiction of the change that I find much more realistic and believable. The post also gives a better look at the churn rate for applicant PIs

Applicants did apply more often, but the changes were rather small: the total number of applications per investigator in each 5-year period increased from about 2.7 to 3.1 (or from 0.54 applications per investigator per year to 0.62). The percentage applying in only one of the five years in each period decreased from 45% to 40% and the number of investigators applying in four or five of the years in each period increased from 12% to 18%.

I am still surprised, but this just indicates that my perceptions are swayed by being in contact with the most active seekers of funds from the NIH. The bigger labs. This dovetails with my moderate surprise that the vast majority of PIs hold only one or two grants and the plurality holds only one (over 70% of PIs). To belabor the point:

It appears the number of applicants has contributed more. Let’s do the thought experiment. If there had been no increase in applicants and only the observed higher application rate (from 0.54 to 0.62 applications/investigator/year), the number of RPG applications would have grown 16% from 148,878 applications in 1998-2002 to about 170,000 in 2008-2012 instead of the 258,802 that we actually saw. On the other hand, as noted at the beginning of this blog, the increase in applicants alone would produce an increase of about 50%, from 148,878 to almost 225,000.

So we are back to our understanding that the increased competition for funds (74% increase in RPG applications) reflects an increase in the number of applicants. This coincides with the ~50% increase in applicant institutions, seen from about 1998 to 2012 as well. There is one simple conclusion that is supported.

Too many mouths at the NIH trough.

In contrast, this new analysis from Rock Talk, combined with the prior grants-per-PI analysis, shows that *greedy fat cats and furiously-submitting soft-money **GrantHounds contribute much less to the current problems with low paylines and/or success rates.

Additional reading
Does the NIH support too many Principal Investigators?
Preparing our gunsights: What types of investigators exist in the NIH system?
Reconsidering the “too many mouths at the NIH Grant trough” hypothesis
The real problem with the NIH budget is the growth in the number of mouths at the trough

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*alleged

**rumoured

Is most assuredly necessary for the security of a free State

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My First Rifle

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They even come in “girl”!

What could possibly go wrong?