Prof-like Substance has written a post wondering if the grant-related criteria for tenure have been modified in the face of the current funding environment. One of the comments drew my eye. Elsa said:

We have monthly workshops for new faculty sponsored by the dean’s office and were recently told that “NIH funding rates are at 10-15% but we expect all of our faculty to be in the top 10-15%.” Large state school R1.

Deans who expect all of their faculty to be in the top 15% of all scientists funded by, for example, the NIH are delusional. That’s the first problem. Especially if you are in a large state school with a heavy research mission. There have to be at least 50 of these, by anyone’s criteria for “large state school R1”, in the US. The Rock Talking blog indicated there are something on the order of 85,000 applicant PIs to the NIH. Gating on R01 apps only, there are about 1,200 applicant institutions (1,900 counting all application types). Fifteen percent of 85,000 is 12,750 investigators. If these are evenly distributed between 1,200 or 1,900 institutions, we end up with 8-11 top-15%ile investigators at each institution.

Now, we don’t know the size of the skew in the distribution and my estimate of 50 large state schools is rough. It also overlooks the big private universities and medical schools as well as a couple of moneybag$$ research institutes. Luckily, there is the NIH RePORT. Ranking applicant institutions by aggregate funding in FY2013 I’m down to 200 places and still seeing Universities that might be seen as “large state schools, R1”. Especially by their own Deans of Research and/or Faculty. The Universities around a rank of 200 are landing about $8 million, each, from the NIH so far this Fiscal Year. Let’s suppose that the above 12,750 top-15%ile investigators were distributed only to these 200 applicant institutions- we end up with only 63 investigators per institution. From this analysis, the Dean would have to be overseeing only 63 faculty to make the expectation a valid one.

Soo…that leads to another question, how many awards per institution as we descend the ranks? Well ranking the FY2013 table by the number of awards, I make it to about 115 applicant institutions with more than 63 awards. Obviously, some subset of investigators are holding multiple awards so this is a very rough indicator. But still. The idea that only about 60 or so professors are seeking NIH funding from these rather large state Universities that slot in around the 116 total-NIH-funding rank is absurd. Clearly there are many, many more.

The abovementioned expectation was also, I remind you, directed at the first 6 years of a professor’s career since this is when the tenure decision comes. These poor suckers have a very narrow window to get their NIH grants funded. That’s a further absurdity in the expectation.

Finally, to undercut both my analysis and the expectation that triggered this post…. NIH grant success rates are per-application and do not reflect the per-PI success rate. We have not yet see, to my recollection, is a per-applicant success rate across a 2-3 year interval. It is likely higher than the NIH’s per-application success rate but I really don’t know that for sure. If it is substantially higher then succeeding in time where the NIH success rate is 15% is going to be available to more than 15% of all applicant PIs.

OTOH, the RockTalk analyses (here, here, here) argue that the massive increase in applications is being driven by more applicants, not by the same number of applicants submitting more grants. So it may be that the per-PI success rate really doesn’t differ much from the per-application success rate.