Politics, Budgets, and NIH Funding for New Investigators

This post gets into the weeds discussing funding for biomedical research in the US. I want to discuss historical funding trends, changes in NIH policy, the relationship between politics and funding research, and ask whether “peer review” is truly unbiased.

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New R01s for Established (blue) and New (yellow) Investigators (top) over time. Fitted linear lines with 95% confident intervals are also plotted. Proportion of new R01 applications that are awarded to New Investigators (blue, bottom). Noted on the timeline are Government Shutdowns (green dashed), NIH New Investigator Policy changes (solid), NIH budget doubling period (magenta dashed), and the Budget Control Act (Sequestration).

In 2007, NIH created the NI classification, and created a “shortened” review cycle in which NIs could resubmit applications within that years’ funding cycle, and also set up a policy for the SRG’s to give special consideration for NI, and cluster their review during the meeting. Then in 2010, they instituted a policy to: “Support new investigators on R01 equivalent awards at success rates equivalent to that of established investigators submitting new R01 equivalent applications.” This was an effective Affirmative Action move in which, during 2010, the Success Rate for NI was forced to be equivalent to the Success Rate for Established PI’s for R01 applications. As you can see, this more-or-less worked, and the proportion of NI’s being awarded R01 equivalents quickly went up to historical levels from the pre-1990’s. Currently, the policy is: “NIH will continue to support new investigators on Type 1 (new), R01 equivalent awards at success rates comparable to that of established investigators submitting Type 1 applications.”

Then in 2011, the Republicans were sworn into office and took control of the House of Representatives. Late in 2011, they passed the Budget Control Act, also known as Sequestration. This reduced the NIH budget over the course of the following 3 years (and potentially into the future). With Sequestration, the number of new R01 projects funded has declined. Jeremy Berg (from U Pitt), notes that in 2013, there were 1,000 fewer researchers funded (established PI’s loosing funding, and NI with lower forms of support loosing funding).

This sucks. I don’t think it’s intentional. But I think it’s obvious, unconscious bias favoring the connected and resource-rich individuals at the expense of the careers and future innovative capacity of a whole generation of scientists.

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