Dispelling Rumors on NIH Application Limits


I have seen the very recent report and follow-on discussions that NIH is considering asking institutions to limit grant applications as a way to control demand. Let me present the facts. You may remember the dialogue we had back in October 2011 on how NIH should manage science in fiscally challenging times. The option of limiting applications was raised at that time but was discarded at the outset and we are not pursuing it now.

Assessing how NIH manages its funds is an ongoing endeavor and I believe strongly that it is particularly important to brainstorm with the extramural community in as many settings as possible such as annual meetings of professional societies, conversations with individual scientists, and here on my blog. In order to fully paint the picture of the options that have been proposed in the past, and to provide context to what we are considering now, these wide-ranging conversations often include mentioning ideas that NIH is not actively pursuing and may never implement. In a recent example, I shared how the question of the number of applications submitted per institution was tackled in an October 2011 analysis and also the data I posted last year about the relationship between numbers of applications and awards at different institutions.

The discussion of how to manage NIH funds that we had in October 2011 was engaging and informative, and did result in changes in policy. Notably, we launched a pilot, and then implemented the NIH Special Council Review policy which provides additional Council consideration of new and renewal applications from investigators who currently receive more than $1 million or more in direct costs. The community offered lots of other ideas as well that we may decide to consider sometime in the future, but at the moment limiting applications by institution is not one of them.

As you know it is extremely important to me to engage the community early as we are developing policies because you give us ideas we haven’t thought of and you tell us how our actions will affect you in ways we haven’t recognized. I also find it essential to provide you with the data that support the decisions we make. These principles will continue to be important to me as we move forward.


  1. Can you provide any information about the impact of the “Special Council Review”? How many applications have been subject to this review? How many of these have been funded? How has the policy affected the number of grants funded or the level of funding?

  2. Thank you for this post. Does Dr. Rockey dispute the reporting of Paul Basken in Nov 12th’s Chronicle of Higher Ed about the need to control “demand of applications?” It doesn’t sound like a rumor when demand management is discussed by NIH officials publicly.

  3. I too wonder what the impact of the Special Council Review has been. Metrics such as number of applications reviewed and fraction denied would be useful.

    An unrelated questions regards any idea of when the RePORT database will include funds awarded to both institutions of a Multi-PI grant.

  4. Dr. Rockey is not a very good representative for NIH, and perhaps should just withhold further comments on anything pertaining to the funding situation.

    Honestly, it just gets more embarrassing with every blog post. If this really represents how the “thinkers” at NIH are doing business, then somebody needs to do a serious review of senior leadership.

  5. The elephant in the room that no one is talking about is plagiarism during grant proposals (and I don’t mean copying words). If an investigator’s chances for funding are low why would he/she put out and pursue original ideas and costly supporting data efforts rather than do incremental research in an area he/she has already established. In this respect, an overly competitive environment is detrimental to the NIH mission (health improvement). The funding success rate needs to be significant (20-30%) in order that original ideas and original scientists can develop-not huge programs for incremental science or dishonest scientists (an oxymoron). High success rates allow originality and new discoveries to flourish. It may be argued that the supporting data efforts need to be submitted/published beforehand, but original investigators with little funding are handily beaten at the next steps and the proposal and future work becomes incremental in the hands of incremental or God-forbid dishonest scientists.

    1. Beautifully said. At “true” success rates of 4%, creativity is lost and careers of younger and mid-level scientists are lost and science become incremental and self-canablistic. Continuing to feather the nests a few with multiple R01s is unconscionable.

  6. I think it is a bit unfair to blame Dr. Rockey. The bottom line is we should be taking on our Representatives in the US House. She is a civil servant and is not allowed to discuss what is really going on in this country. A small minority of some members of one party in one house of Congress are seemingly anti-science along with their anti-government mantra. They have been able to successfully cut (real cuts) NIH budgets over the past couple of fiscal years. In addition the real dollar increases except for ARRA funding has been declining in real dollars when compared to the 1990s and shortly after the doubling of the NIH budget was finished. I find it very difficult to understand NIH funding priorities. It is not at all clear to me why RFAs and new center grant (P series) grants are still being accepted when instead NIH policy directors should–at all costs–try to maintain a higher payline for F, K and R series awards. There should be some restraint on U series awards as well. At present it is difficult to assess the many merited RPGs–the staple of NIH funding–in the current environment. On this I do think NIH policy makers should restrict soliciting expensive grants (P30s, P50s, U01s) etc and instead funnel the tight dollar into assuring we have a workforce of well-trained investigators for the future (F and K series) and fund R01s at a higher payline. You might find that study sections would function better and these special merit councils would not be necessary.

  7. Regarding Special Council Review, does NIH also have plans to include funding from private foundations, for example, HHMI? If not, why not?

  8. Fundamentally, the elephant in the room is CSR. The SS approach works when three groups of people get funding: established investigators that have their friends on the board, young scientists that get a special % break, and those investigators describing innovative and cutting edge ideas. At a 20% those three groups get funded and a healthy scientific environment is maintained. Today, at 8% funding, it is an old boys network that rewards incremental, boring grants from established investigators that have 2 if not 3 reading advocates on the SS. CSR establishes SS without regard to the requests and wishes of the institutes which means, at 8% funding, the SS are adrift.

  9. I think that a higher pay line for R01s is critical. Withouth that, the entire structure of American life science will implode. Fund more grants by reducing salaries, travel, and total size of grants, so the money stretches further.

  10. The best kind of a grant for the future of science is the RO1. I have seen bright students leaving science because they see the agony of their advisors trying to get funding. Nobel prizes are given for work performed by the awardee when he/she was on the bench. They are awarded for ideas outside the box, but as we all know, no one gets a grant for proposing things outside the box. The system needs more flexibility with funding. Maybe the higher the score, the larger percentage of the requested budget but people should not be arbitrarily cut off from any funds to follow their ideas.

    The statistics of funding are so highly biased that it is not useful to use them. A proper average of success would include the time wasted (years) and the loss of ideas not developed by the 90% of applicants who are not funded. Instead the data is taken like an exit poll at a casino where the sampling is taken only from the winners.

    This can be seen again in the A1 limitation. The reported motivation was to shorten the time between application and funding (the generation of ideas and data). If one averaged in the time (years) for those denied the opportunity to generate ideas and data, it is clear that the A1 limitation achieves the opposite. Again, it comes from sampling only the winners.

    On the review panels, the members should be asking not only if a proposal is good science but whose ideas will be thrown in the trash if we give this person another grant or more money. The noise in the review system is enormous at these low funding levels and a minor comment can remover an applicant for good funding to zero funding. Say someone is rated at 16.1% and the cutoff is 16%. No one should have such self confidence in their view of the future to make that judgement in basic science.

    1. There is no 16.1% any more in the current review system. In addition, the CSR should give their best effort to recruit top scientists on their panels now. The overall quality of review declines as well in these years.

  11. I think limiting the number of applications per investigator sounds like a great idea. We are spending so much time reviewing grants and papers so it would be good to reduce that. And grantwriting is really a zero sum game by definition. If everyone wrote 50% less grants the same amount of funding would be allocated.

  12. I strongly support the idea of reducing the size of the grant but increasing the numbers of grants awarded. This is the key to keep many research labs running.

  13. Limiting the number of applications an individual can submit rather than limiting institutions makes a lot of sense. First, the quality of proposals would increase because how good can proposals be if someone submits 11 in a year? Not very good, in one case I know, because all 11 were unscored and thus were a waste of the reviewer’s time and NIH’s money. Making institutions choose which proposals to send forward would impose an entire review system on institutions that would further delay investigators over the delay already imposed by their current review of budgets.

  14. Reducing the indirect cost (around 50%) to 10-20% would increase the payline significantly. In addition, if research and innovation is critical to universities, universities should cover majority of researcher’s salary and benefit (PI), and facilities. It will free up a lot of money to be used in real research. If $30B = $20B(direct) + $10B (indirect), then cutting the indirect down to 20% would change the equation to $30B = $25B(direct) + $5B (indirect), a net increase of $5B to be re-allocated to support 5,000 more grants at $1M each for direct cost.

  15. Agree with Frank on this- right now R01s and other NIH awards are graded as either an “A” or an “F”, which is totally illogical. A tiered funding system of some sort would allow more labs to survive, and thus more diverse ideas to remain in their respective fields. To my knowledge, this approach has not been proposed by the NIH.

  16. The NIH is not a supplemental employer of mega R1 institutions in the nation. Institutions need to start paying their employees themselves. Having PI’s contribute 50%-60%-70% or more of their salaries off of grants is an absolute ridiculous model that the NIH should never have allowed. Take a page out of the NSF’s book, an institution that only contributes 22% to a PI’s salary REGARDLESS of the number of awards the PI has.

  17. The culture around NIH funding is desperate need of a change. Universities are always vying for increases in overhead charges, but yet are reluctant to invest their own money into the research that bears there name. The real question is how do we change the system from a government handout into a public/private or Fed/State partnership? The money would go much farther if Universities took on the responsibility of identifying cost-savings (energy usage, redundant systems, etc) instead of bulking up administration or endowments.

    Can we start by rewarding universities that take initiative and reduce their indirect costs?

  18. Let me cast another vote for limiting the number of proposals from an individual, limiting indirect costs to a standard amount for every institution and creating a tiered system for funding.

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