In this post we show the estimated number of postdoctoral researchers (“postdocs”) supported in recent years by NIH grants. We gathered these data in coordination with the Advisory Committee to the Director’s (ACD) Working Group on Re-envisioning NIH-Supported Postdoctoral Training.
NIH can support postdocs and graduate students through the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) program, which offers fellowship (“F”) and training (“T”) awards that are limited to United States citizens. However, most NIH support for postdocs and graduate students comes from non-NRSA research project and research center awards.
Several years ago my colleagues published an “enumeration study” which found that by Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 progress reports NIH supported 29,702 postdocs (see Table 2 there), inclusive of NRSA-supported fellows and trainees. The study was labor-intensive as it occurred at a time when many progress reports were submitted non-electronically and the all-personnel report was not yet mature. Implementation of the modern electronic progress report began in FY2012 with more comprehensive use announced by the agency in FY 2015.
We used administrative grants data, which are derived from electronic administrative data. Data on research staff other than Principal Investigators came from progress reports; recipients are asked to provide information on all personnel who contribute at least one calendar-month per year on any given project.
Over time, NRSA support for postdoctoral fellows and trainees has declined while support for graduate students has increased, especially in recent years (Figure 1).
Table 1 shows the number of principal investigators (not including those on F grants), non-NRSA postdocs, NRSA postdocs, and total postdocs. In FY 2017 the number of NIH-supported postdocs was slightly higher than the enumeration-study-documented number from FY 2010 progress reports. From FY 2017 to FY 2020 the number of postdocs increased (along with the number of principal investigators). After FY 2020, the number of grants and principal investigators continued to increase, while the number of postdocs decreased. To put these numbers in context, recent NSF tables (see Table 3 there) indicate that in FY 2017 there were 21,781 postdocs in “Biological and Biomedical Sciences” and 18,653 in “Health” (which includes clinical medicine fellows). The corresponding values for FY2021 were 20,182 and 17,770.
Table 1: Number of Principal Investigators and Postdocs Listed as Personnel on NIH Awards by Fiscal Year. The number of Principal Investigators does not include those on Fellowship Awards.
|Fiscal Year||PIs||Postdocs Not NRSA||Postdocs Training||Postdocs Fellowship||Total Postdocs|
From FY 2017 to FY 2022, the numbers of principal investigators, co-investigators, and graduate students increased, while there were decreases for staff scientists, and technicians especially after FY2020 (Tables 2 and 3).
Table 2: Number of Selected Staff Listed as Personnel on NIH Awards by Fiscal Year. The number of Principal Investigators does not include those on Fellowship Awards.
|Fiscal Year||PIs||Co-Investigators||Postdocs||Graduate Students||Staff Scientists||Technicians|
Table 3: Percent changes in selected research staff groups, with comparisons against FY2017 for FY2021 and FY2022 and with comparisons of FY2022 to FY2020.
|Group||Change 2021 vs 2017||Change 2022 vs 2017||Change 2022 vs 2020|
Postdocs and graduate students are supported for more calendar-months of effort than principal investigators or co-investigators (Figure 2).
In summary, we find that:
- The number of NIH-supported postdocs has decreased, especially over the past two years.
- The numbers of NIH-supported principal investigators and co-investigators have increased.
- The number of NIH-supported graduate students has steadily increased, even over the past two years, but the rate of increase has slowed.
- The number of NIH-supported staff scientists and technicians has declined, especially over the past two years.