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An Early Look at Applications Submitted During the Pandemic

It has been four months since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered laboratories and clinical studies across the country and the world. On April 10, only a few weeks into the pandemic, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report on the “Effects of COVID-19 on the Federal Research and Development Enterprise.” The report described the consequences of social distancing and other pandemic mitigation measures. These consequences included laboratory closures, de-prioritized projects, cancellation of meetings and conferences, loss of revenue, disrupted personnel processes (e.g., graduation, promotion, hiring), supply-chain interruptions, and, overlying all of these, a great deal of uncertainty.

Since the CRS report was issued, we have learned more about the pandemic’s effects on non-COVID research and on the research workforce. There have been substantial challenges to clinical trial activities as well as in research based on animal models. A survey of the scientific workforce found that biomedical scientists have seen substantial reductions in productivity. Of particular worry, women with young children appear to have been disproportionately affected. Another study found a decline in women authors on preprints. And another international survey found that half of scientists reported fewer research hours, while substantial proportions reported more time on data analysis, more time on manuscript (or thesis) preparation, and, to a lesser extent, more time on grant applications.

One marker of research activity is the flow of grant applications. The recently passed June 5 research grant deadline gives us an early look into the effects of the pandemic. We looked at the number of incoming Type 1 (new) and Type 2 (competing renewal) research grant applications received between May 1 and June 5 in the following years: 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Note that since March of this year most of the applications we have received that focus on COVID-19 have been supplements to existing grants, as that was the quickest way for us to fund COVID-19 projects. Since we did not include supplements in this analysis, COVID-19 research efforts should not artificially inflate the numbers of new and competing applications from May–June 2020.

Table 1 shows the number of R01-equivalent applications when the sex of the designated principal investigator (PI) is self-reported . Applications were included in this analysis if the sex of the PI was unknown or withheld. The number of applications received from May 1 to June 5, 2020 was 10% higher than the same time last year. The proportion of applications in which the PI were only women remained stable. The proportion of applications designating only male PIs was slightly lower. For all years, over 90% of applications were Type 1.

Table 1*: Number of R01-equivalent applications received between May 1 and June 5 in 4 consecutive years.

  Number All Women (%) All Men (%) Other (%)
2017 6398 24.6% 61.7% 11.5%
2018 6481 26.4% 59.8% 11.2%
2019 6171 25.8% 60.9% 10.7%
2020 6799 25.7% 56.8% 14.8%

*Multiple-PI applications are included in the analysis.  Gender/Sex categories may include Women, Men, Unknown, and Withheld. The “Other” column reflects a combination of two or more of these gender categories on a multiple-PI application.

Table 2 shows corresponding data for all Research Project Grants (RPG’s).  The patterns are similar to those for R01-equivalent applications.

Table 2*: Number of RPG applications received between May 1 and June 5 in 4 consecutive years.

  Number All Women (%) All Men (%) Other (%)
2017 7248 24.4% 61.4% 11.9%
2018 7153 26.4% 59.3% 11.5%
2019 6939 26.0% 60.1% 11.3%
2020 8018 25.3% 57.4% 14.3%

These data offer a first look into the effects of the pandemic on NIH-related activities. The data for the October 5 deadlines will be important. Many more months of lab slowdowns, enforced teleworking, and school / camp closures may lead to detrimental effects on researchers’ efforts. In addition, school districts across the country are announcing that their physical campuses and buildings remain closed through the rest of the calendar year, placing even more burdens and stress on scientists with family responsibilities.

Over the next few weeks to months, we will share with you additional data reflective of grant-related scientific activities, especially those that reflect the well-being of and challenges to research staff and administration. Please also look out for a survey from NIH later this summer that will help us better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on the research community.

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19 thoughts on “An Early Look at Applications Submitted During the Pandemic

  1. Is the increase in RPG applications spread across all mechanisms or did specific mechanisms see above average increases in applications?

  2. Thanks Dr Lauer for looking into this crucial issue. The majority of research laboratories have been shut down from March until June and currently still working at drastically reduced capacity for safety concerns. There is only so much we can accomplish remotely, particularly wet and animal labs, if we do not go back to the bench full time. This stalling is affecting research productivity and progress in a devastating way; the capacity of publishing and submitting competitive non-covid related grants will be curtailed for months, since we cannot obtain enough preliminary data. In some cases, this situation will jeopardize the career of early and mid-career investigators as well as our trainees. An extension of the grant funding period could probably help as well as possibly extend the policy of just in time information for preliminary data for grants submitted in upcoming and future submission cycles. We really appreciate NIH support and understanding.

    • I empathize, additionally the burden of closures and campus/lab access restrictions have not been uniform across the country. Some campuses allowed “critical” (P.I. defined, which may include just about anything, indeed on my campus many labs boldly carried on without any modifications to activity while the rest of us shut down) and many more resumed normal operations early April and have not experienced significant impacts to productivity. While I am impressed on some level by those who have experienced limited disruptions, either because they have been deemed “critical” or because they have decided to carry on regardless, it is frustrating for those of us with experiencing major disruptions. For those of us with a long painful hiatus away from full productivity, it may be a long time before we can catch up and be competitive again for publications and funding.

    • Where do you see “NIH understanding and support”? NIH reports to Congress so they only care that we produce results in order to report to Congress, and I’m sure (given NIH history) they will end up benefitting the groups that have the largest financial power to not stop operations. They don’t care about the little guys, they never have. That’s why they have come up with larger and larger programs and RFAs that are out of reach for us.

  3. I am thrilled you are looking at this, and imagine the fall numbers will more closely reflect the impact of COVID19 on women scientists. Often an R01 or other big grant has been in preparation for many months with the deadline planned. I would imagine childcare issues will impact the decision and preparation to apply on more of a 6-9 month cycle. Likely May-June applications were in the preparation pipeline before the pandemic.

    • These are my thoughts as well. Being a very new (female) Assistant Professor, I can say that for me and the majority of my colleagues in similar positions, the ideas and preliminary data for the grant I submitted in June were already mostly flushed out and ready to go. For this reason, I would expect that sex-specific pandemic effects on grant submissions are not going to come out in the first cycle; it’ll be a slow burn over the next few cycles while women are still (disproportionately) struggling to take care of kids while working full time. Thank you for looking at this!

  4. This may seem like a no brainer of a question but if the data on submissions are only available through June 5th, is the 90% prevalence of Type 1 applications due Type 2 and 3 submission typically having a later due date, i.e. July 5th? The data are interesting either way and much appreciated. Thanks!

  5. I would be interested in the demographics of diversity.
    As a disabled researcher with a genetic disease….primarily cardiac, I will have medical need to social distance longer and more extensively for quite some time. This will mean replacing myself … for the human studies portion. As a small research based business developing technology this will not be economically possible. Further as funds set aside for our work (marijuana impaired driving) are likely to have ongoing direction into higher priority NIH work, I do not see this resolving. Is there consideration of how COVID is impacting disabled researchers differently? If not there needs to be. There will be more of us as a direct result of disabilities from COVID infection.

  6. An extension on the early career status is desired, specially for women with little kids. The 2020 looks completely lost in term of productivity for us. The tenure is highly compromised.

  7. I think working in a research lab would be one of the safest occupations possible. Sterile technique is already followed, and social distancing can be maintained at the lab bench with planning. Hand washing/sanitizing right there at the sink. It doesnn’t seem difficult to do bench work safely in a pandemic. The problem with childcare is major however. Even without a pandemic it is a major major factor in mostly women’s productivity – also one or two men, possibly, maybe. It’s been awhile since I was a working mom scientist so I hope things have changed so burden is more shared. Back then women were supposed to hide the fact they were mothers, and looked upon with suspicion when leaving the lab to pick up kids. Good luck moms!!

    • Research labs with human participants are definitely riskier (for researchers and participants) than wet labs or labs with animal subjects. Unfortunately, the environment for mom scientists has not changed all that much, so far as I can tell. We all need to speak out, but I can tell you that when we do, we are still looked at as “not really invested in our research careers,” “whiny,” “not demanding enough time from our partners,” or “making excuses for low productivity.” This is done, not only by men, but by senior scientist women as well. We still have a long way to go if we want to change this for our girls, who may grow up to be mom scientists too.

  8. When stats on researchers w small children are compiled, could we get data for stay at home dads as well as moms? Part of getting good gender balance in the scientist-parent demographic is encentivizing it equally (amongst some other, clearly more systemic issues). E.g. NIH gives moms an automatic 12mos extension on Early Investigator status, but 6mos for dads. If dads stay home, moms get to work!

  9. The increase in application in May may reflect the fact that with the labs shut down, people spent more time in writing grants. It will be interesting to see whether the same trend holds for the October deadline, as the reduction in productivity may lead to a decrease.

  10. I would be very interested in the racial breakdown, also, can data be dis aggregated to evaluate the effect for women with children under 5, or by faculty rank?

  11. Could the authors comment on the odd, ~40% increase in May 2020 in applicants failing to identify by sex? If men account for much of this shift, adding them back in would lead to different conclusions about the stability of submissions for women and men.

    Also, it would be helpful to look at these trends for evidence of an (early) motherhood penalty, to examine whether scientists who are mothers sheltering in place with young children take bigger hit to their productivity, as one would expect.

  12. Thank you for this preliminary analysis. I would be very interested to see the percentages of ECI and NEW Investigators in the men and women subgroups. I would predict that the higher impact will be visible in these categories. I see all my colleagues struggling and deciding what to “let go” – paper or grant….

  13. What about an analysis of the flow of award letters going out from NIH, as a complement to your analysis of applications coming into NIH? My colleagues complain of delayed NOA’s, from applications which passed peer review before the pandemic. NIH staff appear to be overwhelmed with working from home with small children too. Still waiting out here to hear about funding, meanwhile, we are losing opportunities to move research ahead, and losing young people who have waited for months with no news of fellowships. Thank you very much.

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