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.

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).

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Casualties of the Budget Wars

Disparity Between 2001 R01 and Today's R01
Disparity Between 2001 R01 and Today’s R01

I am currently serving as a co-investigator on an R03 project. In NIH terms, this means a small, self-contained 2-year research project with an annual budget cap at $50,000 per year. As co-investigator, it provides me with 5% “Effort.”  That is — this project is budgeted in such a way that I am expected to spend 5% of my time working on it. This works out to be 0.6 months per year, or roughly 2 weeks and 3 days, or 13 days.  I was happy to help write my part of the project when the grant application was being submitted (“rising tides” and all), but I didn’t realize what I was getting into.

For this project, I am supposed to do sub-cellular fractionation followed by Western blotting on 3 regions from 50 mouse brains (25 per year).  Each sub-cellular fractionation generates 5 samples (total protein, crude synaptic densities, large synaptic plasma membranes, pre-synaptic vesicles, endosomal vesicles). Given the limits of the ultracentrifuge and time it takes to process the samples, I can do 6 per day just to generate the samples. (This is an 8-10 hour day, too). So that is roughly 5 days to process one region of one of the cohorts — or 15 days to process all 3 regions from one of the cohorts. In all, this generates 375 samples. We can run 4 Western blots per week (roughly; it’s a 3-day process with lots of incubation times, if you try to do more, it is easy to mess things up); let’s say it takes me 2 workdays to do 4 Westerns (this is generous). At 12.5 samples per Western (12 on one, 13 on t’other — making all 25 from a cohort’s region/fraction on two blots), that is about 16 days (of more or less non-stop benchwork) to complete the cohort. Not to mention data analysis, optimization, instrument preparation, supplies management, the emails, the meetings, the organization, storage, labeling (very important), note-taking, and record keeping. Continue reading