Continued Support for Early Stage Investigators in FY 2023

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For the past several years, we have reported on the number of early stage investigators (ESIs) supported on R01-equivalent awards. Last year, we reported that NIH supported 1,609 ESIs in fiscal year (FY) 2022, a continued steady increase over the last several years. Despite a slight decrease, we continued to support a large number of ESIs in FY 2023, notably at an earlier age than other new investigators.

For more than a decade, we and the research community have become more concerned about the challenges faced by ESIs pursuing careers in an increasingly competitive funding and hiring environment. For this reason, NIH has made considerable efforts to enhance support for ESIs pursuing NIH support, such as through the Next Generation Researchers Initiative and other related policies.

In this post, for simplicity we refer to investigators applying for and receiving awards. But, as a reminder, NIH makes R01-equivalent awards to institutions (not individual researchers).

Table 1 shows the number of PIs that applied for or received an R01-equivalent grant in FYs 2016 – 2023, disaggregated by career stage. In FY 2023, there were 5,325 ESI applicants and 1,587 ESI awardees, slight decreases compared to FY 2022.

Table 1. PIs on Type 1 R01-Equivalent Applications and Awards by Career Stage for FYs 2016-2023

 Early Stage InvestigatorsNew, Not EarlyAt-RiskEstablished
FYApplicantsAwardeesAwardees (% Change)ApplicantsAwardeesAwardees (% Change)ApplicantsAwardeesAwardees (% Change)ApplicantsAwardeesAwardees (% Change)
20164,149978NA5,862942NA7,6871,664NA7,2942,086NA
20174,2861,0456.96,148916-2.87,6291,630-2.07,8892,2558.1
20184,7201,28723.26,7451,21532.67,9482,15332.19,0482,99232.7
20194,7461,3162.37,1931,2956.67,9162,1630.59,6143,0070.5
20205,1061,4127.37,3231,3010.57,8212,108-2.510,1403,34011.1
20215,4101,5137.27,6941,280-1.67,9852,026-3.911,0103,3921.6
20225,4351,6096.37,2411,257-1.87,7362,0873.011,0453,5986.1
20235,3251,587-1.46,7551,214-3.407,6952,075-0.611,0003,511-2.4

Table 2 shows the number of R01-equivalent applications submitted, discussed during review, and awarded by career stage. In FY 2023, the ESI discussion rate rose by 1.7% compared to FY 2022, while the funding rate remained around 30%.

Table 2. Discussion and Funding Rates for PIs on Type 1 R01-Equivalent Applications and Awards in FYs 2022-2023 Disaggregated by Career Stage

Career StageFYApplicantsDiscussedAwardeesDiscussion Rate (%)*Funding Rate (%)
Early Stage20225,4353,4661,60963.8%29.6%
20235,3253,4871,58765.5%29.8%
New, Not Early20227,2413,7501,25751.8%17.4%
20236,7553,5471,21452.5%18.0%

* The Discussion Rate is a person-based metric that is the percent of applicants (actually people designated as PIs on an application) who had at least one application make it to the discussion stage of peer review.

Feedback on our recent blog on age at first R01- equivalent award asked how PI age correlated with career stage. The thought is that ESIs should have a lower age at first award than other PIs. We looked into this in Table 3, which shows the age of ESIs and new, not early PIs at the time of application and first award for FYs 2016-2023. During that period, the median age of ESIs at first award was 39 while the age of first-time non-ESI researchers was around 47. These data suggest our focus on ESIs may be lowering the age at which new investigators receive their first NIH award. 

Table 3. Age of PIs at the Time of Application and Award for Type 1 R01-Equivalent Awards for FYs 2016-2023

Career StageFYNumber of ApplicantsMean age at Application (Years)Median Age at Application (Years)Number of AwardeesMean age at Award (Years)Median Age at Award (Years)
Early Stage20163,89040399333939
20173,99440399863939
20184,41040391,2284039
20194,42840391,2404039
20204,74240391,3214039
20215,01140391,4284039
20225,02940391,5034039
20234,97040401,4914039
New, Not Early20164,83149488284847
20175,04949488024746
20185,50449481,0764846
20195,82349481,1264746
20205,80450481,0904847
20215,97950481,0554847
20225,69250481,0464947
20235444504910274947

The next set of data focus on gender (Table 4), race (Table 5), ethnicity (Table 6), and disability status (Table 7). Please note that we use the White House’s Office of Management and Budget Minimum Standards for collecting and reporting race and ethnicity data (see this Nexus article for more information). Additionally, the total number of applicants and awards may be lower than presented in tables one and two, as some PIs may not self-report demographic information on their eRA profiles.

Female ESIs had higher funding rates than male ESIs in FY 2022. However, in FY 2023, male ESIs had a higher funding rate (Table 4). In contrast, the funding rate for new, non-ESI PIs identifying as female remained higher in FY 2023.

Table 4. FYs 2022-2023 Data for PIs on Type 1 R01-Equivalent Applications and Awards Disaggregated by Gender

Career StageGenderFYApplicantsDiscussedAwardeesDiscussion Rate (%)Funding Rate (%)
Early StageFemale20222,4471,59774865.3%30.6%
20232,4761,58874064.1%29.9%
Male20222,7321,73179863.4%29.2%
20232,5821,73378767.1%30.5%
New, Not EarlyFemale20222,4741,38049655.8%20.0%
20232,3891,27046153.2%19.3%
Male20223,5701,84758951.7%16.5%
20233,3801,82461454.0%18.2%

The number of Black or African American ESIs continued to grow in FY 2023 compared to previous years (Table 5). Further, the discussion and funding rates for Black and African American ESIs increased in FY 2023 compared to FY 2022, but these rates remained somewhat below those for Asian or White PIs.

Table 5. FYs 2022-2023 Data for PIs on Type 1 R01-Equivalent Applications and Awards Disaggregated by Race

Career StageRaceFYApplicantsDiscussedAwardeesDiscussion Rate (%)Funding Rate (%)
Early StageAsian20221,464           93342263.7%28.8%
20231,450           94940665.4%28.0%
Black or African American2022232           1285455.2%23.3%
2023281           1637758.0%27.4%
White20223,141        2,02694464.5%30.1%
20233,002        2,00093366.6%31.1%
New, Not EarlyAsian20221,757           93129153.0%16.6%
20231,739           93132253.5%18.5%
Black or African American2022255           1235048.2%19.6%
2023265           1154243.4%15.8%
White20223,535        1,89864353.7%18.2%
20233,298        1,80263454.6%19.2%

In FY 2022, the discussion and funding rates for ESIs were similar for those who did and did not identify as Hispanic or Latino. However, in FY 2023, the discussion and funding rates for Hispanic or Latino ESIs fell below those of their non-Hispanic or Latino counterparts (Table 6).

Table 6. FYs 2022-2023 Data for PIs on Type 1 R01-Equivalent Applications and Awards Disaggregated by Ethnicity

Career StageEthnicityFYApplicantsDiscussedAwardeesDiscussion Rate (%)Funding Rate (%)
Early StageHispanic or Latino2022330           2109863.6%29.7%
2023369           2289961.8%26.8%
Not Hispanic or Latino20224,706        2,9981,39563.7%29.6%
20234,591        3,0291,38766.0%30.2%
New, Not EarlyHispanic or Latino2022430           2147749.8%17.9%
2023417           2197752.5%18.5%
Not Hispanic or Latino20225,178        2,78694253.8%18.2%
20234,974        2,67894353.8%19.0%

In FY 2023, PI’s reporting a disability had lower discussion and funding rates than those who do not (Table 7). However, those rates did increase for ESIs compared to FY 2022.

Table 7. FYs 2022-2023 Data for PIs on Type 1 R01-Equivalent Applications and Awards Disaggregated by Disability Status

Career StageDisability StatusFYApplicantsDiscussedAwardeesDiscussion Rate (%)Funding Rate (%)
Early StageYes202299531853.5%18.2%
2023116753164.7%26.7%
No20225,1563,3001,54264.0%29.9%
20235,0353,2931,50165.4%29.8%
Unknown20221801134962.8%27.2%
20231741195568.4%31.6%
New, Not EarlyYes20228636841.9%9.3%
20238236843.9%9.8%
No20226,0573,2561,10653.8%18.3%
20235,7103,0681,07453.7%18.8%
Unknown20221,09845814341.7%13.0%
202396344313245.9%13.6%

In recent years NIH’s ESI policies have supported a growing number of early career researchers. This focus also appears to have helped lower the age at which ESIs receive their first R01-equivalent award. We encourage you to visit our page on ESI policies for more information on the ways we support early career researchers.

9 Comments

  1. The criteria for defining Early Stage Investigator (ESI) status is unfair. I’m 38 years old and have been considered over the ESI for one year, competing with Principal Investigators (PIs) who are ten years older than me. Typically, people earn their Ph.D. at 27 or 28 and would lose their ESI qualification at 37 or 38. This report indicates that the median age of those who received the first R01 grant is 39 or 40. This means that 50% of people have more time to prepare for their career development. It’s not fair to those who are successful and have a shorter time to complete their Ph.D.

    1. As a researcher approaching retirement age, I am sympathetic to your comments. But it could be worse. I’ve tried diligently to help advance the careers of two of my junior researchers of a similar age (early 30s) – one is a physician researcher. Unfortunately, as we discovered, New/Early researchers are given no consideration whatsoever if they perform research in a small private sector entity. You can’t even activate the feature in Commons when you submit an application. For these young researchers, the age selection bias is very much as it always has been – against them. I have yet to hear any explanation as to why this is the case. In fact, all of the NIH people I spoke with weren’t even aware of it. Would love to understand the rational behind this.

      1. Hi Mark. Hopefully this will help clarify. The ESI flag is applied to a person and to an application. Any person will get ESI status if they’re eligible and have entered their degree information into their Commons profile. Only R01-equivalent applications get flagged as ESI, assuming the PI/MPIs on the application are all ESI-eligible. Small business applications are not R01 equivalents, so the ESI flag doesn’t get applied to those applications.

  2. Makes sense, draw them in to STEM, make them feel great & successful with a prestigious NIH award, and then go “NIH is not a welfare agency” when you don’t fund their renewals or subsequent proposals.

    1. Came here to say the same! Extra push for ESIs and established senior people doing well. Then there are the Associate Professors in the middle of the sandwich experiencing low discussion rates and terrible petty reviews.

  3. Should the younger generation pursue a career in science, particularly in academia considering the age (48-49) at which they get their first R01?

    What do the policy makers at NIH think about this issue?

    A person finishes up his/her Ph.D. before reaching the age of 30. After that they go for post doctoral training (5-7 years) and become independent investigators by the age of 36-38 (if they did their post-doc with big leaders in the field). These new PIs get funded within next 2-3 years as an ESI (NIH graph). Interestingly, these new + early stage investigators represent about 10-20% of the PIs in any given field.

    Rest of the 80-90% of the PIs who weren’t lucky enough to have an opportunity to get the post-doc training with the big leaders/big wigs in the field won’t get independent positions soon enough to be eligible for the ESI. Furthermore, they get hammered twice (first kick – not becoming independent soon enough to qualify for the ESI status) followed by a second kick of getting their first R01 or equivalent at the median age of 48-49 years (MIH statistics).

    The question is, “Does the leadership at NIH think that it’s fair for a researcher to struggle for the next 28-29 years to get funding from NIH after getting their terminal Ph.D. degree.”

  4. I am an MD researcher with no formal graduate research training. I learned everything scientifically (in a non-“big-wig” lab) and just put my head down and worked. I benefitted from the ESI because I had 2 babies during my training and productivity was hard with juggling childcare, clinical care, and research. Many of the junior faculty I started with didn’t make it because they didn’t collaborate, they didn’t innovate, and they don’t realize that when you are starting out, it’s like running a small business. You lab lives or dies with you. If your lab tech sucks and flakes, you have to make sure the experiments are done, even if it’s weekends or evenings. You have to constantly be writing, make friends with fellow researchers so they want to work with you and help you, be kind to others when you can, and ultimately be driven by curiosity and passion for science. The payoff is that once you make tenure, you’ve made amazing collaborations and hopefully am able to translate your work into new therapies that help patients. Good luck to all who are reading this – I weathered some of the low percentage funding years while caring for my small children, later my parents and my husband’s parents, working as a pulmonary and critical care physician (including the COVID pandemic) and managed to stay gainfully funded. I’m no genius – just a hard worker who tries to play well in the sandbox with everyone. And thank you, NIH, for supporting the next generation of scientists! This is very encouraging – will share with our trainees.

  5. This report suggests that its New Investigators, not Early, that need higher paylines the most. Is there a plan to increase funding for them?

    1. Although there is no overall NIH plan to increase paylines or prioritize funding levels for new investigators, individual NIH institutes and centers may choose to prioritize funding them.

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