NIH data on Discussion Rates and Grant Submitting Vigor

July 20, 2022

The latest blog post over at Open Mike, from the NIH honcho of extramural grant award Mike Lauer, addresses “Discussion Rate”. This is, in his formulation, the percent of applicants (in a given Fiscal Year, FY21 in this case) who are PI on at least one application that reaches discussion. I.e., not triaged. The post presents three Tables, with this Discussion rate (and Funding rate) presented by the Sex of the PI, by race (Asian, Black, White only) or ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino vs non-Hispanic only). The tables further presented these breakdowns by Early Stage Investigator, New Investigator, At Risk and Established. At risk is a category of “researchers that received a prior substantial NIH award but, as best we can tell, will have no funding the following fiscal year if they are not successful in securing a competing award this year.” At this point you may wish to revisit an old blog post by DataHound called “Mind the Gap” which addresses the chances of regaining funding once a PI has lost all NIH grants.

I took the liberty of graphing the By-Race/Ethnicity Discussion rates, because I am a visual thinker.

There seem to be two main things that pop out. First, in the ESI category, the Discussion rate for Black PI apps is a lot lower. Which is interesting. The 60% rate for ESI might be a little odd until you remember that the burden of triage may not fall on ESI applications. At least 50% have to be discussed in each study section, small numbers in study section probably mean that on average it is more than half, and this is NIH wide data for FY 21 (5,410 ESI PIs total). Second, the NI category (New, Not Early on the chart) seems to suffer relative to the other categories.

Then I thought a bit about this per-PI Discussion rate being north of 50% for most categories. And that seemed odd to me. Then I looked at another critical column on the tables in the blog post.

The Median number of applications per applicant was…. 1. That means the mode is 1.

Wow. Just….wow.

I can maybe understand this for ESI applicants, since for many of them this will be their first grant ever submitted.

but for “At Risk”? An investigator who has experience as a PI with NIH funding, is about to have no NIH funding if a grant does not hit, and they are submitting ONE grant application per fiscal year?

I am intensely curious how this stat breaks down by deciles. How many at risk PIs are submitting only one grant proposal? Is it only about half? Two-thirds? More?

As you know, my perspective on the NIH grant getting system is that if you have only put in one grant you are not really trying. The associated implication is that any solutions to the various problems that the NIH grant award system might have that are based on someone not getting their grant after only one try are not likely to be that useful.

I just cannot make this make sense to me. Particularly if the NIH

It is slightly concerning that the NIH is now reporting on this category of investigator. Don’t get me wrong. I believe this NIH system should support a greater expectation of approximately continual funding for investigators who are funded PIs. But it absolutely cannot be 100%. What should it be? I don’t know. It’s debatable. Perhaps more importantly who should be saved? Because after all, what is the purpose of NIH reporting on this category if they do not plan to DO SOMETHING about it? By, presumably, using some sort of exception pay or policy to prevent these at risk PIs from going unfunded.

There was just such a plan bruited about for PIs funded with the ESI designation that were unable to renew or get another grant. They called them Early Established Investigators and described their plans to prioritize these apps in NOT-OD-17-101. This was shelved (NOT-OD-18-214) because “NIH’s strategy for achieving these goals has evolved based on on-going work by an Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) Next Generation Researchers Initiative Working Group and other stakeholder feedback” and yet asserted “NIH..will use an interim strategy to consider “at risk investigators”..in its funding strategies“. In other words, people screamed bloody murder about how it was not fair to only consider “at risk” those who happened demographically to benefit from the ESI policy.

It is unclear how these “consider” decisions have been made in the subsequent interval. In a way, Program has always “considered” at risk investigators, so it is particularly unclear how this language changes anything. In the early days I had been told directly by POs that my pleas for an exception pay were not as important because “we have to take care of our long funded investigators who will otherwise be out of funding”. This sort of thing came up in study section more than once in my hearing, voiced variously as “this is the last chance for this PIs one grant” or even “the PI will be out of funding if…”. As you can imagine, at the time I was new and full of beans and found that objectionable. Now….well, I’d be happy to have those sentiments applied to me.

There is a new version of this “at risk” consideration that is tied to the new PAR-22-181 on promoting diversity. In case you are wondering why this differs from the famously rescinded NINDS NOSI, well, NIH has managed to find themselves a lawyered excuse.

Section 404M of the Public Health Service Act (added by Section 2021 in Title II, Subtitle C, of the 21st Century Cures Act, P.L. 114-255, enacted December 13, 2016), entitled, “Investing in the Next Generation of Researchers,” established the Next Generation Researchers Initiative within the Office of the NIH Director.  This initiative is intended to promote and provide opportunities for new researchers and earlier research independence, and to maintain the careers of at-risk investigators.  In particular, subsection (b) requires the Director to “Develop, modify, or prioritize policies, as needed, within the National Institutes of Health to promote opportunities for new researchers and earlier research independence, such as policies to increase opportunities for new researchers to receive funding, enhance training and mentorship programs for researchers, and enhance workforce diversity;

enacted December 13, 2016“. So yeah, the NOSI was issued after this and they could very well have used this for cover. The NIH chose not to. Now, the NIH chooses to use this aspect of the appropriations language. And keep in mind that when Congress includes something like this NGRI in the appropriations language, NIH has requested it or accepted it or contributed to exactly how it is construed and written. So this is yet more evidence that their prior stance that the “law” or “Congress” was preventing them from acting to close the Ginther Gap was utter horseshit.

Let’s get back to “at risk” as a more explicitly expressed concern of the NIH. What will these policies mean? Well, we do know that none of this comes with any concrete detail like set aside funds (the PAR is not a PAS) or ESI-style relaxation of paylines. We do know that they do this all the damn time, under the radar. So what gives? Who is being empowered by making this “consideration” of at-risk PI applications more explicit? Who will receive exception pay grants purely because they are at risk? How many? Will it be in accordance with distance from payline? How will these “to enhance diversity” considerations be applied? How will these be balanced against regular old “our long term funded majoritarian investigator is at risk omg” sentiments in the Branches and Divisions?

This is one of the reasons I like the aforementioned Datahound analysis, because at least it gave a baseline of actual data for discussion purposes. A framework a given I or C could follow in starting to make intelligent decisions.

What is the best policy for where, who, what to pick up?

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