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NIH Success Rate Remains Low

Kelly Rae Chi

Success rates for NIH grants reached a record low in 2011. How did they fare in 2012? Find out...

The success rate for a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant application remained at a record low, according to data released by the Institute last month.

Only 18% of research project grant applications and R01s were funded in 2012, matching the previous year’s historically low NIH success rates.

The success rate for a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant application remained at a record low 18% in 2012. Source: NIH

Meanwhile, the number of research project grant applications increased to a record high of 51,313, up 3% from 2011. A small increase in the number of awards, however—from 8765 in 2011 to 9032 in 2012—has offset this boost in applications, allowing the success rate to hold steady from the previous year.

With the NIH budget remaining essentially flat for nearly a decade, limited research dollars has affected everyone from new assistant professors to established, senior investigators who are struggling to win grants.

“I think the situation now is very stressed,” said Jeremy Berg, associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. “People are spending far too much time writing and rewriting grants and trying to keep their funding stable and lab teams together, rather than tackling the exciting scientific problems out there.”

Overall, two factors have contributed to the rise in proposals, said Sally Rockey, the NIH's deputy director for extramural research: the doubling of the NIH budget from 1999 to 2003, which trained more scientists who are now applicants; and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which added $8.2 billion to the NIH’s extramural scientific research.

“I think we’ll probably see the number of applications at least remain stable, if not decline a little bit,” said Rockey of the coming years. “This could be the beginning of the fall-off.”

What may be a small bright spot is that the success rate for R21 proposals—meant for exploratory or developmental research projects lasting fewer than two years—increased from 13% in 2011 to 14% in 2012. “We have not seen that the average length of an R01 has been reduced at all, but we’ve chosen to fund a larger proportion of some of our shorter mechanisms,” Rockey said.

But the resolution of this year’s NIH budget—which is now operating at 2012 levels, with the threat of sequestration slashing the budget by 8.2%—is only adding to the uncertainty.

As a result, research institutes are searching for new and established investigators to prepare for the worst-case scenario, but available dollars from foundations and industry are scarce. “The reality is that in the absence of NIH support there’s a gigantic hole left that’s too big for anybody else to fill,” Berg said.

Keywords:  nih funding