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NIH Success Rate Hits All-time Low

Megan Scudellari

In 2011, the number of funded grants dropped while the number of submitted applications rose.

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Hoping to score a big National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant? Well, don’t hold your breath. The numbers from last year are in, and they’re not pretty. It is getting harder and harder to win an NIH award. Only 18% of research project grant applications were funded in 2011, the lowest success rate in the Institutes’ history.

The stiff competition was the result of an unfortunate combination of fewer awards and more applicants. Overall, 8765 awards were distributed in 2011, about 700 fewer than 2010. But the number of applicants for those awards increased about 8%, from roughly 46,000 to 49,500.

An NIH study section reviewing grant applications. Source: NIH

Before electronic submissions, grant applications filled the NIH mail room. Source: NIH

“It’s just a lot harder to get grants,” said Barbara Entwisle, vice chancellor for research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). The NIH is UNC’s largest single funder of research, as it is for many universities. “Obviously this is a concern for all of us,” she said.

The decline in total awards is due to a number of factors, said Sally Rockey, the NIH's deputy director for extramural research. For one, the NIH experienced a 1% budget cut in 2011. In addition, a large portion of the institutes’ money was tied up in commitments for past awards (since most NIH awards are multi-year), so there was simply less green to go around. “All those things in combination led to a reduced number of awards,” she said.

The increased number of applications is partly a result of the lingering effects of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, which pumped $10 billion into the NIH for new scientific research, said Rockey. “We have a number of applications still trickling in from there that weren’t funded originally, and also those that were funded are coming back for continued support,” she added. One notable change in 2011 was a 17% increase in proposals for a short-term R21 grants, accounting for more than half of the total increase in applications.

It is too soon to feel the effect of fewer grants on research, said Entwisle. The momentum from previous multi-year grants is sustaining a significant amount of research, but academic centers may begin to feel the pinch as those grants run out. “I think it will continue to be difficult,” she said. For now, researchers are looking more broadly for funding sources and investing more time grant writing, she added. “People are really putting a lot of effort into proposals,” she said.

But Rockey is cautiously optimistic that funding rates will not continue to decline. The NIH received a modest 1% budget increase from Congress for 2012 (though significantly less than the 3.3% boost requested by the Obama administration). And as the effect of the ARRA funding years wears off, the number of grant applications is likely to flatten, said Rockey. “I would hope that we’ll be able to sustain last year’s success rate and that we don’t see further decline,” she said. “But we’ll see.”

Keywords:  NIH funding