Berg on the sequester: 1,000 fewer NIH funded investigators

March 6, 2014

Jeremy Berg has a new President’s Message up at ASBMB Today. It looks into a topic of substantial interest to me, i.e., the fate of investigators funded by the NIH. This contrasts with our more-usual focus on the fate of applications.

With that said, the analysis does place the impact of the sequester in relatively sharp focus: There were about a thousand fewer investigators funded by these mechanisms in FY13 compared with FY12. This represents more than six times the number of investigators who lost this funding from FY11 to FY12 and a 3.8 percent drop in the R-mechanism-funded investigator cohort.

another tidbit addresses the usual claim from NIHlandia that R-mechs and R01s in particular are always prioritized.

In her post, Rockey notes that the total funding for all research project grants, or RPGs, dropped from $15.92 billion in FY12 to $14.92 billion in FY13, a decrease of 6.3 percent. The total funding going to the R series awards that I examined (which makes up about 85 percent of the RPG pool) dropped by 8.9 percent.

What accounts for this difference? U01 awards comprise the largest remaining portion of the RPG pool…The funds devoted to U01 awards remained essentially constant from FY12 to FY13 at $1.57 billion.

Go Read the whole thing.

This type of analysis really needs more attention at the NIH level. They’ve come a looooong way in recent years in terms of their willingness to focus on what they are actually doing in terms of applications, funding, etc. This is in no small part due to the efforts of Jeremy Berg, who used to be the Director of NIGMS. But tracking the fate of applications only goes so far, particularly when it is assessed only on a 1-2 year basis.

The demand on the NIH budget is related to the pool of PIs seeking funding. This pool is considerably less elastic than the submission of grant applications. PIs don’t submit grant applications endlessly for fun, you know. They seek a certain level of funding. Once they reach that, they tend to stop submitting applications. A lot of the increase in application churn over the past decade or so has to do with the relative stability of funding. When odds of continuing an ongoing project are high, a large number of PIs can just submit one or two apps every 5 years and all is well. Uncertainty is what makes her submit each and every year.

Similarly, when a PI is out of funding completely, the number of applications from this lab will rise dramatically….right up until one of them hits.

I argue that if solutions to the application churn and the funding uncertainty (which decreases overall productivity of the NIH enterprise) are to be found, they will depend on a clear understanding of the dynamics of the PI population.

Berg has identified two years in which the PI turnover is very different. How do these numbers compare with historical trends? Which is the unusual one? Or is this the expected range?

Can we see the 1,000 PI loss as a temporary situation or a permanent fix? It is an open question as to how many sequential years without NIH funding will affect the PI. Do these individuals tend to regain funding in 2, 3 or 4 years’ time? Do they tend to go away and never come back? More usefully, what proportion of the lost investigators will follow these fates?

The same questions arise for the other factoids Berg mentions. The R00 transition to other funding would seem to be incredibly important to know. But a one year gap seems hardly worth discussing. This can easily happen under the current conditions. But if they are not getting funded after 2 or maybe 3 years after the R00 expires? This is of greater impact.

Still, a welcome first step, Dr. Berg. Let’s hope Sally Rockey is listening.

33 Responses to “Berg on the sequester: 1,000 fewer NIH funded investigators”

  1. GAATTC Says:

    Berg is my hero.


  2. lurker Says:

    I had gone to 9 interviews and had zero offers, then this k99 thing lands in my lap in June ’08. One place whose search failed learned of my windfall, and gave me an offer that I took because the place had 9 months sal and was good for my 2 body situation. so I start my R00 in mid 2009, and send in my first R01 app a year later in 2010. This is when the A2 sunsets, which was the only way two of my other junior colleagues got their first R01 in ’10. My colleagues have tried since and failed to get second R01s since, and are up for renewal and thinking they have a better shot getting a new grant than renewal despite being reasonably productive.

    So, its triageville for me ’11 and ’12. I go in with others on grants and it’s still triageville. In mid 2012 my R00 ends, so I start pulling multiple weekends in lab away from my fam, fine tuning 2, 3 apps. Now my grants are not getting triaged but scored. At least there is hope!

    But 2013 is the diarrhea-cane of shitstorms with Sequester.v2 and Shutdown.v2. I shove in 2 A1s anyway, and my scores go up on both too as I do everything the reviewers say, but still not close enough to meet paylines for some ICs whose ESI payline is only 14%. So in 2014, I will need to pull two brand new A0 lottery tickets out of my sore ass.

    What sunk my A1s? I think it was the other edge of my R00 sword when sections repeatedly looked at my 6 corresponding/co-corresponding papers (no postdoc mentor on there) and because they’re not glamour pubs, ding me with 5’s and 6’s on investigator, because hey, that 3 year R00 should mean that I have a CNS paper by now, otherwise my future productivity is really doubtful.

    When we’re all fighting for scraps, only the top dogs win…..


  3. lurker Says:

    and by top dogs, I really mean the BSDs who really dont’ know what the situation now is really like for ESI’s. They “fondly” tell me how hard it was in the ’80s, when their funding rates were “just as bad” as right now. Clearly, this blog has the authoratay and data showing it was not nearly as bad in the ’80s as it is now, but these graybeards are not the blog-reading kind like the Berg, who is my hero too.

    I’m talking about serious BSDs, Breakthrough Prize winners, in-line potential laureates, NYtimes featured BSDs I’ve had the privilege to ask them, as “Statesmen” for biomedical research, what can be done about the current funding crisis. The response?

    “Oh, yeah, it’s tough. But it’s always been tough. It’s cyclical. Don’t worry about it. Just keep trying. I got through it. I’ve had a good run [and I will continue indefinitely, because why retire?]. It’s too bad for you, but nothing is really going to change.”


  4. GAATTC Says:

    Lurker, your family does not care if you are funded. I’ve cut back to 45-50hrs/week and will let the chips fall where they may. This information provided by Berg and DM reinforce the need to keep working hard, but have caused me to re prioritize family rather than working 70hrs a week for little additional gain. Berg has been instrumental in deciphering important aspects of review and funding, but instead of fretting over his data, I now view it more philosophically. A learned helplessness, if you will…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. anonymous postdoc Says:

    Thank you for telling your story, Lurker. It is scary, and depressing, and frustrating, and real.


  6. Ola Says:

    Putting my cynical reviewer hat on, an obvious problem is there in your first paragraph – “9 months salary” which suggests you’re at a primarily undergrad institution or a smaller college, not an academic medical center. Regardless of your publication record, poor institutional support (no full salary) and not being at a med center (NIH emphasis is on the H) are big hits in the investigator column. On the flip-side, it sounds like your grants ran out a while ago, so clearly someone in the admin’ likes you and is covering your ass until you get funded. That’s good, and needs to be emphasized in your proposal (personal section of the biosketch). Do you have startup funds left? Talk that up in the proposal too.

    Regarding new submission vs. renewal, this all comes out in the wash. I have colleagues who absolutely refuse to renew a grant and just put new ones in every time, but one of them has gone unfunded for 2 years so the chair is losing their original enthusiasm for this approach. I thought about trying this but went for renewal and it paid off – not just getting the grant, but the kudos with the dean/admins that comes from being able to say “continuously funded”.

    A word of advice on “two new R01s: – FFS speak with your program officer about this before submitting anything. I’ve seen people who thought they had altered the aims sufficiently to count as new, but then the CSR yanked it pre-review. You absolutely must go over the aims in fine detail with someone at NIH, and if they express any doubt about overlap with the old proposal, go back and try again. Do not underestimate the importance of doing this dance before submitting.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Endel Says:

    Even at a top research institution, wouldn’t a 9 month sal be the norm? It seems to me like a 12 month sal would be more indicative of an undergrad institution.


  8. eeke Says:

    Ola – it seems you are talking about environment and not the investigator (medical school vs. undergrad institution). Why would reviewers attack the investigator for this?


  9. Dave Says:

    The problem with the K99/R00 is that they are primarily given to postdocs who hit the jackpot in terms of getting a CNS paper or two under their hat. There are some ICs who basically make it a requirement. Independently of their BSD mentor, of course, a lot of these folk are now realizing that it is not quite that simple to keep churning out these papers and set up a new lab and a new research program at the same time. Of course, it is not reasonable to expect this of these new PIs, but I think a lot of reviewers are very hard on R00 recipients because they believe they are superstars who have been given lots of resources. Basically, the bar is raised even higher for them, and it is not really fair.

    But, Lurker, EcoR1 man up there is right. Get your priorities straight. It just aint worth it.


  10. LIZR Says:

    Ola – I disagree with your somewhat sweeping statement that an investigator will get dinged by a typical reviewer for not being at a med school and having only 9 months of salary support. I think this is highly dependent upon the particular field of study, the type of experimental work proposed, and the available resources at the institute where the investigator is located. At least half of the top dogs in my subfield of developmental biology are not at medical schools – pretty much all of these folks have only 9 months of guaranteed salary support and fund their summer salaries with R01 support. This doesn’t seem unusual or like some kind of major red flag to me.


  11. Evelyn Says:

    lurker – sorry you are going through this. Wish I had some good advice, but your story is far too common these days. Are you working on something that can be translated to foundation funding? While the money is less, it can demonstrate your research is competitive and keep you afloat. There is also DoD and military funding you can apply for that can be a considerable chunk of money. How committed are you to the PI career path? Would you ever consider moving to industry? I know some good folks that took this path after being PI’s and say it is the best decision they ever made.


  12. bj Says:

    Is there a report like this one about scientists?

    Click to access changes.pdf

    “Making Changes Research Report

    I don’t see any end in site to this shrinkage (maybe, a new and booming economy).

    Who are those 1000 this time around? We know many are new investigators. Is the next group the soft money folks? or older researchers? folks in poorer universities?


  13. drugmonkey Says:

    my 6 corresponding/co-corresponding papers (no postdoc mentor on there) and because they’re not glamour pubs, ding me with 5′s and 6′s on investigator, because hey, that 3 year R00 should mean that I have a CNS paper by now, otherwise my future productivity is really doubtful.

    That seems amazingly harsh to me. Rarely seen anything worse than a 3 on Investigator, if ever.

    But the key is….who are your subfield, parallel seniority, competitors? How have they performed?


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    “Oh, yeah, it’s tough. But it’s always been tough. It’s cyclical. ”

    I said this for awhile too. Then I looked at the longitudinal trends in success rates across the prior down cycles. And the inflation adjusted NIH budget line.

    This claim of the current downturn being the same as the prior ones is not even remotely accurate.

    Now, arguably, the ESI special paylines may be slightly improving the situation of these individuals compared with the past. Maybe.

    it is not quite that simple to keep churning out these papers and set up a new lab and a new research program at the same time. Of course, it is not reasonable to expect this of these new PIs, but I think a lot of reviewers are very hard on R00 recipients because they believe they are superstars who have been given lots of resources. Basically, the bar is raised even higher for them, and it is not really fair.

    I can’t say whether study sections expect extra from the R00 PIs but in my field the recently hired K99/R00 awardees seem to be in the usual type of departments with the usual type of expectations compared with similar people who transitioned prior to the K99/R00 being available.


  15. Jeremy Berg Says:

    I would welcome any suggestions about other longitudinal aspects of the NIH grantee pool that might be high priorities for analysis. Post here, at or email me at

    Liked by 1 person

  16. There was a time that K99/R00 signified something special. When you did a job search, K99/R00 were almost automatically interviewed. Now every applicant seems to have a K99.


  17. Physician Scientist Says:

    My experience with the K99 is as follows: My first post-doc got a 24 priority score on an A1. S/he had 2 first authors from grad school (IF of 5 on one and 2 on the other). In my lab, s/he had 2 first authors (IF of 11 on one and 6 on the other). I am not a BSD – have a 6 person lab staffed mostly by grad students.

    To assume that all K99 applicants need to be from BSD labs with multiple C/N/S papers is demonstrably untrue at our institution (top 20-25 med school) as all our K99 recipients are similarly credentialed to my post-doc.


  18. lurker Says:

    Deans, chairs, tenure committees, and study sections don’t care if you have work-life balance. My student, tech and postdoc are also not going to care about my work life balance if I can’t pay for them to stay in my lab. I’m pulling out all the stops because I care too much about my little fiefdom, and I would really like to keep doing my research, rather than start eyeing an exit strategy. But its disheartening to exert everything you got, and think you might have the chops having gotten a glamour pub in grad school and postdoc, and then think you have the scientific savvy to survive in this business, but the game has changed into grantsmithing savvy instead.

    Yeah, I’ve fukked up here and there abit as a noob PI, but I wasn’t born yesterday. The POs can only tell me that what’s the biggest issue is the major concern of productivity based on the R00, they are simply expecting “more” [glamour pub] because you got a nice windfall so early, but while some ESIs are phenoms, most of us are really just noobs like the rest of us, the learning curve as a newly minted PI is still steep.

    I know that research funding is a tournament model. The system is what it is, and the best I can do is learn how to play it. All the blog readers here, we know how stacked the playing field has become, but we’re mostly an anonymous proletariat with little effective power. What scares me really for our future is that the BSDs with the real power to shape NIH policies deny any problems exist (like the complete disregard of the Tilghman reports). I was trained by this cohort of BSDs during the doubling, and one of them said to my face “Yup, we trained too many students like you, and we were aware of it, but the money [during the doubling] had to go somewhere.” as if it was a justified afterthought. There is no regret whatssoever, and no graceful exits or gestures, it’s still the status quo right now, when they are marching into their 70’s and 80’s, and they are still pulling in their renewals or MERITS because it’s a safer bet for a PO to keep the BSD fiefdoms going than to gamble on an ESI/NI.

    Is this really how to sustain an already strained biomedical workforce ecosystem with a pile of BSDs?


  19. […] These labs aren’t all necessarily shutting down. They could have bridge funding from their institution or be “surviving by other means,” such as foundation support, Berg says. Moreover, NIH’s budget rose 3.5% this year, so the number of investigators could rebound somewhat in 2014 or later years, as DrugMonkey notes. […]


  20. GAATTC Says:

    Dang it, Dave outed me…

    Lurker, I have yet to read an epitaph that acknowledged NIH support. We all are passionate about this, or we would not be reading/commenting on such esoterica that, incidentally, 99% of the world’s population could care less about. Work hard. Control what you can. But don’t forget about what’s really important. Now let’s all hold hands and sing kumbaya.


  21. neuropop Says:

    Well the deck is stacked whichever way you look at it. Sometimes even grantsmithing savvy doesn’t cut it. I ha(d)ve a well funded lab but tenure committee went thumbs down. So I am looking for an exit strategy even though I am flush with cash.

    But that aside, now that the sequester is over, it will be interesting to see how things rebound. Anecdotal evidence has it that the number of grants at study sections (and NSF) has been steadily falling, or certainly not keeping pace with past trends. Perhaps the cull is happening right before our eyes.


  22. The Other Dave Says:

    I have thought about taking a job at NIH or NSF, where I could maybe work to change some of the shit we all complain about. Or at least understand it and help explain the rationale.

    The headline should read: “1000 new NIH admin applicants”


  23. neuropop Says:

    TOD: there is no rationale. Too many mouths at the trough. But the one thing that has to change is to strip big mechs/U’s/P’s and center grants. That money would be better spent on more individual investigator awards or multi-PI collaboratives.


  24. Joe Says:

    @neuropop “Anecdotal evidence has it that the number of grants at study sections (and NSF) has been steadily falling, or certainly not keeping pace with past trends.”
    At my study section, application numbers are still increasing.


  25. drugmonkey Says:

    How so, neuropop?


  26. M andresen Says:

    There is a bigger dynamic at work here than simply the availability of grant funds. Many universities sent Deans and Presidents to get online MBAs and seven figure salaries. They have no understanding of science or even science lab economics but were greatly impressed with the idea that if some investigators are paying 70-90+% of their salaries then why not everyone. Labs are closing one after another in my med school. The expected “rent” per square foot of space is a joke but the lag between these pipe dreams and reality is huge. So labs are closing and closing at an accelerating rate. The saddest is that the fatality rate for folks living on start up packages is just as high. FIrst renewal PIs are falling as well. If you have the stomach and can hang around for another 3-5 years then the oversupply of PIs, the greed of Dean of Medicines and the exploding availability of open lab space will eventually come back into line with the money available. What is left unfortunately will be void of a lot of solid scientists and proven methodologies. The people going away now are leaving science for good and with them is their knowledge and experience. And having been a starting PI in the early 80’s, no this time it is different. Now the institutions are unsupportive and bridging is a joke for all but the simplest labs.

    Good luck, it is only a matter of time and I will join the unfunded. It seems inevitable.


  27. neuropop Says:

    @DM:”how so?” my situation or the funding world in general?


  28. The Other Dave Says:

    @Neuropop: I think DM means: How is the deck stacked in such a way that grant-smithing doesn’t matter? (This blog was originally mostly about grant-smithing, remember).

    @DM: I think, based on his comment to me, that neuropop is pointing out that the number of great proposals far exceeds the availability of funds, making the quality of the actual proposal somewhat irrelevant.

    See? I can do this whole comment section by myself, even if you guys aren’t here.


  29. Joe Says:

    I’ve seen a number of R21s that are really pared-back R01s that didn’t get funded. Is it the case that many folks are limping along on R21s trying to wait out the cull?


  30. drugmonkey Says:

    I was wondering how it is so obvious that P-mechs and Us are a problem (particularly when Multi-PI collaborations are the solution).


  31. […] Behavior Genetic Or Learned? (don’t forget the genotype by environment covariance…) Berg on the sequester: 1,000 fewer NIH funded investigators President Obama’s 2015 Budget for Health Research is a Disaster Up to 1000 NIH Investigators […]


  32. Dr. Noncoding Arenay Says:

    @Joe – I know that my previous lab split an unfunded RO1 into two R21s and I believe both R21s were funded. So, yes that certainly is happening, and I’m sure in many other labs too.


  33. Crystal clear Says:

    @Dr. Noncoding Arenay – I am not sure that an R21 presented as a trimmed-down R01 is widely accepted. My last R21 was heavily criticized for the lack of ‘high-risk’ component and ‘too much’ preliminary data.


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