After crunching the numbers on the trends in NIH funding, some interesting patterns emerge.
Clearly, the drop in funding of both R01 (initial grants) and R02 (renewals) are substantial over the Bush years. But intriguingly, the average size of a grant funded has risen. This may seem like a good thing. After all, more money is good, right?
The size of a grant will reflect various things, including how ambitious the project is, how technological it is, how many people are involved, etc. But it fundamentally reflects how much anyone is prepared to invest in it. Big grants go to research groups with well-established research programs. They are applying for a first grant on a project, but they are probably applying known techniques and proven strategies. They may be refining a technique that worked in previous studies.
Big grants won’t generally go to people who are trying to establish a totally novel approach. Those initial projects will be funded with smaller grants.
The drop in the number of grants funded combined with the rise in average amount funded is actually a bad sign. It suggests that federal science funding has become more risk averse.
These sorts of federal grants are supposed to be funding innovation. They are meant to promote risky work that has big potential benefits to society. As the author of the Science paper points out:
Peer review cannot discriminate among and accurately select only 1 of 11 meritorious applications.
The researchers only looked at unamended applications. Some of these will be resubmitted and approved. As the author explains:
each revision of a rejected application delays by close to a year the time required before support can be approved and research initiated. For type‑1 applicants, this is a slow, uncertain process that often leads to career reevaluation and change by otherwise successful professional contributors. For an ongoing and previously approved type‑2 research activity, rejection casts major doubt on eventual continuation and frequently results in breaking up teams of highly trained personnel. Therefore, success rates for funding initial applications are of primary importance.
And their decline bodes ill for American leadership in the biomedical sciences.