The impact of the sequester: 1,000 fewer funded investigators

The Rock Talk blog recently featured a post titled “FY2013 by the numbers: research applications, funding and awards” in which National Institutes of Health Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey noted that the number of competing R01 awards dropped from 5,436 in fiscal year 2012 to 4,902 in FY13 and that the number of competing R21 awards fell from 1,932 to 1,771. These results reflect the impact of the sequester, which resulted in a $1.5 billion, or 5 percent, decrease in the NIH appropriation.
 
While these data capture one important aspect of the sequester’s impact, they do not reflect a more integrated evaluation of the effect on investigators. As I detail below, such an evaluation reveals that the number of funded investigators dropped by about 1,000 from FY12 to FY13, substantially more than the drop of 150 from FY11 to FY12. Given the investments these investigators and society have made in developing their scientific skills, these data provide a quantitative measure of the inefficiencies created by erratic support for biomedical research.

Examining R grants held by each investigator

I analyzed data from NIH RePORTER for R-series grants. These included all funding mechanisms from R01s to R56s (including SBIR and STTR, or R41 to R44, grants) but excluded R13 (conference awards) for FY11, FY12 and FY13. Data for other mechanisms, such as P01s, DP1s (Pioneer awards) and larger mechanisms, were not included.
 
For each year, data for about 35,000 awards were downloaded. The number of awards is made up of about 75 percent R01s, 10 percent R21s, 5 percent SBIR/STTR awards and 10 percent other mechanisms, with R01s accounting for approximately 80 percent of the funds. The awards for each investigator were aggregated for each year. Some of the key parameters from this analysis, together with those reported on Rock Talk, are summarized in the table.
 
Examination of these data reveals that from FY11 to FY12 the total amount of funding going to the R mechanisms increased slightly while the number of investigators decreased by 151, resulting in a slight increase in the average funding per investigator.
 
In contrast, from FY12 to FY13 the total amount of funding going to these mechanisms decreased by $1.2 billion (compared with the $1.5 billion cut across the entire NIH appropriation and $1 billion for all research project grants). This drop has two components: The number of investigators decreased by 1,001, or 3.8 percent, and the average funding per investigator dropped by 5 percent.

Year-to-year dynamics of the investigator pool

These trends can be analyzed further by examining the dynamics of investigators into and out of the system as shown in the figure.
 
Of the 26,513 investigators funded by these mechanisms in FY11, 5,287 were no longer funded by these mechanisms in FY12. However, 5,136 investigators who were not funded in FY11 were awarded grants in FY12, with the difference accounting for the small decrease of 151 investigators. The number of investigators for whom funding ended and was not renewed in FY12 grew by 219 to 5,506. More strikingly, the number of investigators who were not funded in FY12 but who were awarded grants in FY13 dropped by more than 600 to 4,505, a decrease of more than 12 percent from the previous year.

Characteristics of funding through R mechanisms and all research project grants (RPGs) for FY11 through FY13

  FY11 FY12 FY13 Sources
Total funding for R mechanisms $13.38B $13.51B $12.31B This study
Number of investigators with R funding 26,513 26,362 25,361 This study
Average R mechanism funding per investigator $505K $512K $486K This study
Total funding for all research project grants (RPGs) $15.82B $15.92B $14.92B Rock Talk blog 1 and Rock Talk blog 2
Average size of a research project grant $450K $455K $441K Rock Talk blog 1 and Rock Talk blog 2
Number of research project grants 35,173 35,029 33,796 Rock Talk blog 1 and Rock Talk blog 2

Who are the unfunded investigators?

Examination of the parameters for the applicants who received funding in FY12 but not in FY13 revealed the following:

  • • More than 2,900 investigators of the 5,506 who lost R funding had R01 grants in FY12. The median duration of these R01 grants was five years, with more than 750 having durations of eight years or more and with more than 180 with durations of 20 years or more.
  • • More than 110 investigators had R00 funding in FY12 but did not show any R funding in FY13. Given that there have been about 180 K99/R00 awards per year, this indicates that more than half of the K99/R00 awardees are not transitioning to other R funding, at least in the first year after the completion of their R00 awards.
  • • Nearly 900 investigators had R21 funding in FY12 but did not show any R funding in FY13. Given that there have been about 1,800 R21 awards per year, this indicates that about half of the R21 awardees are not transitioning to other R funding in the next year.

What about the more than 600 investigators who would have been expected to be funded without the sequester but who weren’t funded? Of course, we do not know who these investigators are. However, based on the data recently posted on Rock Talk, we can estimate that about 50,000 investigators competed for these mechanisms in FY13.
 
Also, based on previous years, we can reason that about 30 percent of those who would have been funded without the sequester would have been new investigators. Thus, the sequester may have resulted in the loss of about 200 new investigators who normally would have received their first major NIH funding and may have interrupted funding for more than 400 more established investigators.

R series versus research project grants

In her post, Rockey notes that the total funding for all research project grants, or RPGs, dropped from $15.92 billion in FY12 to $14.92 billion in FY13, a decrease of 6.3 percent. The total funding going to the R series awards that I examined (which makes up about 85 percent of the RPG pool) dropped by 8.9 percent.
 
What accounts for this difference? U01 awards comprise the largest remaining portion of the RPG pool (search using the grants and funding interface on the NIH website). These are cooperative agreements rather than grants for which NIH staff members are involved in guiding the research. The funds devoted to U01 awards remained essentially constant from FY12 to FY13 at $1.57 billion.
Graphic: investigator pool dynamics
Shrinking pool of R-series-funded investigators: Of the 26,513 investigators funded by R-series mechanisms in fiscal 2011, 5,287 were no longer funded by those mechanisms in FY12. At the same time, 5,136 investigators who had not been funded by these mechanisms in FY11 ended up being funded in FY12. As a result of this give-and-take, 151 fewer investigators were in the pool. This downward trend continued in FY13, when 5,506 investigators did not receive funding and only 4,505 investigators were added to the mix. Ultimately, 1,001 fewer investigators than in FY12 were in the pool.

What does it all mean?

First, let me offer a disclaimer. While I have done my best to ensure accuracy in this analysis, these are not official NIH data and some minor differences likely would be observed with a more detailed analysis due to a range of technical issues. Furthermore, I have focused on R-series awards and have not included other mechanisms that also contribute to the support of specific investigators.
 
With that said, the analysis does place the impact of the sequester in relatively sharp focus: There were about a thousand fewer investigators funded by these mechanisms in FY13 compared with FY12. This represents more than six times the number of investigators who lost this funding from FY11 to FY12 and a 3.8 percent drop in the R-mechanism-funded investigator cohort.
 
The NIH took steps to reduce the drop in the number of grants awarded in FY13. This can be seen in the cut in the average level of R funding going to each funded investigator by 5.2 percent. This figure reflects both the effect of cutting noncompeting grants, estimated to average 4.7 percent across NIH, and the limited number of new grants going to already-funded investigators. The 5.2 percent decrease in R funding going to each investigator can be compared with the increase of 1.5 percent of funds going to each investigator from FY11 to FY12.
 
The NIH leadership and staff had a great challenge in trying to operate with the reduced appropriation associated with the sequester. The results described, wherein R series awards absorbed a disproportionate amount of the sequester, do not appear to be a matter of clearly articulated policy decisions but rather the accumulated impact of a large number of individual decisions. Only through analyses like the first-pass analysis that I have described here can the real effects of the sequester be appreciated.
 
The results of this analysis highlight the inefficiency associated with having a large number of individuals, both productive established investigators and talented young scientists at the dawn of their careers, struggling to obtain even modest resources to realize their contributions to science and to the health of the nation.
 
Jeremy BergJeremy Berg (jberg@pitt.edu) is the associate senior vice-chancellor for science strategy and planning in the health sciences and a professor in the computational and systems biology department at the University of Pittsburgh.

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