By the 21st Century Cures Act, the Next Generation Researchers’ Initiative calls on the NIH to develop policies to increase funding opportunities for new researchers seeking to secure early independence. To put the Initiative in perspective and to extend on previous blogs we’ve posted on changing demographics in NIH-funded researchers, we thought it would be useful to explore trends according to career stage.
First, some definitions. We define “Early Stage Investigators” (ESI) as those who are within 10 years of completing their terminal degree or post-graduate clinical training and who have not yet secured independence as a PI of a substantial NIH research award. We define “New Investigators (Not ESI)” as those who have not yet secured independence as a PI of a substantial NIH research award but are more than 10 years from completing their terminal degree or clinical training. We define “Early Established Investigators” as those who are within 10 years of receiving their first substantial NIH award and who received their first substantial NIH award as an ESI. Finally, we define “Established Investigators” as all others.
Second, for the most part we will focus on competing R01-equivalent applications and awards – these include R01, R23, R29, R37 and RF1 activity codes.
In 2016, NIH received competing R01-equivalent applications from 24,498 unique applicants: these included 3,729 Early Stage Investigators (15%), 4,813 New Investigators who were not ESIs (20%), 3,461 Early Established Investigators (14%), and 12,495 Established Investigators (51%). Figure 1 shows box plots for age distribution by career stage. Age increases as we move from Early Stage Investigators to Early Established Investigators to New Investigators (Not ESI) to Established Investigators. The age distributions are not particularly skewed, as the means approximate medians in all groups.
Figure 2 shows the number of unique R01-equivalent applicants each year by career stage for each fiscal year since 1995; Figure 3 shows the same data by proportions. Over time, the proportions of older investigators (New Investigators who were not ESIs and Established Investigators) increased, while the proportions of younger investigators (ESIs and Early Established Investigators) declined. (Note: in 2007, NIH introduced the “New Innovator” DP2 awards, and DP2s were not considered part of the R01-equivalent definition for considering ESI status until 2008. For this reason, there is a notable spike in the number and percent of ESI applicants in 2007, and a proportional decrease in the percentage of established investigators applying for R01-equivalents in 2007.)
Figures 4 and 5 show analogous data for awardees. The proportion of awardees who were Established Investigators climbed, while there was a marked decrease in the proportion of awardees who were Early Established Investigators.
Figure 6 shows funding rates by career stage. The funding rate in any given fiscal year is the ratio of unique awardees to unique applicants. Funding rates increased substantially during the doubling (1998-2003) for all career stages, but less so for Early Stage Investigators. Funding rates for all career stages decreased dramatically after the NIH doubling ended in 2003. There were declines in 2013 – the year of sequestration – which were particularly severe for Early Stage Investigators.
One reason why investigators may leave the NIH grant system is that they are unable to withstand a failed application if they don’t have other active awards to fall back on. Figure 7 shows the average number of active substantial awards, according to career stage. As expected, Early Stage Investigators and New Investigators who are not ESIs do not have many active awards. Established Investigators have more active awards and this has increased somewhat over time. Thus, Established Investigators may have an easier time staying in the system.
Established Investigators not only make up a greater proportion of awardees (Figure 5), they also secure, to an even greater extent, a larger proportion of competing award dollars (Figure 8).
Finally, Figure 9 shows the percent of all first-time R01-equivalent awardees who go on to receive at least one more second substantial award within 5 years. For those he received their first award in 1996, over 55% went received at least one substantial award. For first-time awardees in 2011 that value fell to only 38% (and this even accounts for ARRA and the multi-PI policy).
In summary, consistent with changes in demographics, we have seen substantial changes in the career stage composition of R01-equivalent applicants and awardees. As the Next Generation Researchers’ Initiative will focus on increasing funding for Early Stage Investigators and Early Established Investigators, we may see some turning of the curves.
Many thanks to the Statistical Analysis and Reporting Branch of the NIH Office of Extramural Research for their work on this analysis.