The Scientific Activist

In a letter in last week’s issue of Science (subscription required), two scientists from the National Caucus of Basic Biomedical Science Chairs–H. George Mandel and Elliot S. Vesell–describe in detail the funding crisis currently plaguing American scientists. The authors demonstrate a shocking decrease over the last seven years in the allocation of NIH (National Institutes of Health) R01 grants, the nation’s keystone funding program for supporting biomedical science.

Here’s the data:

Fate of unamended (unsolicited) R01 research grant applications

Fiscal year Number submitted Number awarded Total $ awarded (millions) Success rate (%)

Type-1 grants: new submissions
1999 8957 1761 456 19.7
2000 8626 1736 503 20.1
2001 8284 1590 501 19.2
2002 8560 1556 510 18.2
2003 9605 1477 493 15.4
2004 10624 1288 438 12.1
2005 10605 970 351 9.1

Type-2 grants: continuation (renewal) submissions
1999 3214 1772 554 55.1
2000 3233 1708 563 52.8
2001 3100 1637 583 52.8
2002 3153 1555 559 49.3
2003 3767 1697 627 45.0
2004 3773 1530 580 40.6
2005 3896 1262 496 32.4

Although it wouldn’t be optimal, one wouldn’t be too surprised by the success rate of grants decreasing as the number of applications increases, and that’s surely partially at play here, contributing to the steady decline in success rates of applications to both programs since 2001. Still, a plummeting success rate for whatever reason is probably a good indication that this grant program is becoming increasingly underfunded.

(Hmmm… 2001…. Wait a second! I know that year! Yes, that’s the year that George W. Bush took office. OK, then, no surprises there.)

The real shock, though, is that not only has the funding of the R01 grant program not kept up as the number of applications has increased, but the number of grants awarded and the amount of funds available have both decreased sharply since 2000 for Type-1 grants and since 2003 for Type-2 grants.

The year 2005 was particularly dire, with an overall decrease in funding of the two program of 17%. Compared with the year 2000, last year there were 23% more Type-1 grant applications, but 44% less grants were actually awarded, making the success rate in 2005 less than half that of 2000. Over that period, the total amount of money awarded through both programs has decreased by over 20%. The chance of a grant application being successful and receiving adequate funding, then, has decreased dramatically.

This is an embarrassment for the US, one that could have severe repercussions for American science, and in the closing paragraph, the authors of the letter lay out just what’s at stake here:

This issue raises serious concerns about the present and future of U.S. biomedical science because the R01 grant is such an essential contributor to, and index of, scientific innovation. Recent discoveries have provided enormous new opportunities to better understand and treat disease, and we must take advantage of these breakthroughs. In addition, the country’s economic future depends on U.S. leadership in providing new scientific and technical discoveries. Also, failure to provide adequate funds for biomedical research discourages the brightest young people from choosing scientific pursuits.

H.G. Mandel, E.S. Vesell, Declines in Funding of NIH R01 Research Grants, Science 313 (2006), 1387-1388.


  1. #1 David Bruggeman
    September 12, 2006

    Shocking? Following budget trends for the NIH, I would think most folks could have seen a hard landing coming as appplications and students would grow to fill the building boom even as the doubling of the budget ended.

    How reliable is the R01 as an index of innovation? At best I would think it a proxy measure, much like patent counts and numbers of scientific publications speak to quantity of research and don’t speak (at least not strongly) to the quality of research.

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    September 12, 2006

    What is shocking is the sudden and large decrease in absolute funding.

  3. #3 Arun
    September 12, 2006

    The Iraq war would have funded some 400 years of NIH research.

  4. #4 Ed Darrell
    September 12, 2006

    Bush apologists will argue that the research not done was “fluff,” stuff that shouldn’t have been done, in evolution, in HIV/AIDS, in contraception, etc.

    Have you looked at the projects funded, versus those that were not? It would be a second level of analysis useful in debate, and, I’d wager, it would be even more shocking to most people.

    How did Alzheimer’s research fare? Heart disease? Cancer? Diabetes? Obesity? Allergies to petroleum? One might wonder if there is a clear political trend in what did get funded, and what got cut.

  5. #5 Jason
    September 13, 2006

    Question: what are the stats for the rest of the Clinton years?

  6. #6 Patrick Caldon
    September 13, 2006

    I think the better figure to look at would be a graph of the sum of the dollar amount awarded for type-1 and type-2 grants; by eye it seems that it was pretty much in an even keel, slowly growing until a minor drop in 2004, and a substantial drop in 2005.

  7. #7 RickD
    September 13, 2006

    NIH funding as a whole doubled during the Clinton years.

    What the stats above also don’t show is the constriction placed upon in-house research at NIH. In the ’90s NIH was expanding rapidly in that direction also, but more recently there’s essentially been a hiring freeze.

    However, there is enough funding for Haliburton to put up fencees, gates, and all sorts of security measures around the Bethesda campus. I think at this point NIH is about as well-defended as the Capitol. I would concede the point that security was absurdly lax in 2000 (it was common for people to walk in off the streets without needing to show ID to anybody) but the more recent developments are ludicrous.

    (I worked at NIH from 2000-2004.)

  8. #8 Orac
    September 13, 2006

    “NIH funding as a whole doubled during the Clinton years.”

    Actually, the NIH budget doubling overlapped the Clinton and Bush administrations. It occurred over the five fiscal years of 1999 to 2003. You will note that the trend of decreasing R01 success rates actually began well before the period during which the NIH budget ended and that the funds devoted to R01s only increased around 10% during those five years. Part of the problem is the shifting priorities of the NIH towards large, collaborative, multicenter sorts of projects.

  9. #9 Orac
    September 13, 2006

    I was talking about Type I R01 grants.

  10. #10 Nick Anthis
    September 13, 2006

    For an indication of how the NIH fared during the Clinton years, the total funding for R01 grants doubled from 1992 to 2000, and although the number of grants awarded increased by 35%, the amount given per grant increased by 46% (based on data from the NIH).

  11. #11 apalazzo
    September 13, 2006

    There is some misunderstanding here. The stats are for unamended (i.e. “fresh”, not resubmitted) unsolicited grants. The authors argue that it is harder to get grants on the first try and they have to be RESUBMITTED to get funded. Over all the NIH budget is flat. So total grants are not going down (although more and more grants ARE going to huge “big biology” collaborative grants, and less to junior faculty.)

  12. #12 kevin v
    September 13, 2006

    I’ll post about this today or tomorrow, but Orac is approaching the crux of the matter — this is not a Bush bugaboo. It doesn’t help anything to make this a political issue. The Bush OMB made sure the doubling of NIH promised (not legislated, by the way, just hand-shake promised) during the Clinton admin was seen through. Once that happened (FY03 to FY04) the NIH budget leveled off. That there are shifting priorities and ratios between R01/R02 and other types of grants is within NIH’s purview to decide and those decisions are made, on the whole, by scientists who have become program managers, not by political appointees.

    Also, to cut off comment I’ve seen elsewhere on this in the past, it shows an ignorance of the legislative and appropriations system to suggest that not appropriating for the Iraq war would have meant increased NIH budgets for the past three FY’s.

    For an overall perspective on science funding see my set of posts here:

  13. #13 Nick Anthis
    September 13, 2006

    Also, to cut off comment I’ve seen elsewhere on this in the past, it shows an ignorance of the legislative and appropriations system to suggest that not appropriating for the Iraq war would have meant increased NIH budgets for the past three FY’s.

    I think that depends on how cynical you’re willing to be. I don’t believe anyone here thinks that if we hadn’t gone to war in Iraq we would be funding science like never before. However, once we take a step back from the policy process, the fundamental truth remains that money placed in one area could have been allocated somewhere else, regardless of the political realities.

  14. #14 kevin v
    September 13, 2006

    no, for this reason: almost all of the Iraq/Afghan war appropriations have been non-offset. To explain, early every year the budget committees put out a budget resolution in which they essentially set out the yearly budget amounts, within which the appropriations committees stay. In theory (and this is oversimplifying it), all money authorized to be spent for the year is offset by some income (the various taxes and duties, etc.). Most of the war appropriations have been “supplemental appropriations” which means they fall outside of the predetermined yearly budgets and they are thus not offset. They are only done in special occasions (as your representatives have apparently decided the Iraq/Af wars to be) as they directly and unequivocably create a budget deficit. In order to believe that Iraq/Af money would have been spent elsewhere we’d have to believe that Congress would have gone into deficit, non-offset spending for basic research activities. Obviously they’re not going to do that….

  15. #15 Nick Anthis
    September 14, 2006

    Yes, but the specially allocated money for these wars is clearly not the only funding that supports them. The Pentagon enjoys an arguably very inflated budget every year.

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