In my previous post, I compared pre- and post-doctoral stipends with the average size of a Research Project Grant (RPG) over time. In this post, I noted that the **average** RPG size may not reflect the full RPG distribution.

As a first pass to investigate this issue, I have examined the size distribution for RPGs for FY2013. From data from the NIH Office of Budget, the total spending on RPGs (not including SBIR/STTR) was $14,850,256 thousand and the number of competing and non-competing RPGs was 33,395.

To try to reproduce these values, I downloaded from NIH RePORTER all non-SBIR/STTR grants in the RPG Spending Category from FY2013. This included the following mechanisms: DP1, DP2, P01, R00, R01, R03, R15, R21, R33, R34, R37, R56, RC4, RF1, RL1, U01, U19, and UM1. Once these were downloaded, the data needed to be cleaned up to avoid double-counting of subprojects for P01s and U01s, counting extensions for foreign grants that were counted in previous years, eliminating entries for very small amounts that are probably made for accounting purposes, and so on. I do not know all of the NIH accounting principles and do not know if the data in RePORTER completely match the official NIH data. Nonetheless, I was able to generate a list of 35,333 entries totaling $14,363,160 thousand. Of these grants, 26,098 correspond to R01 or R37 (MERIT) awards. Thus, while my results do not perfectly match the official NIH data, I think the major conclusions drawn below are very likely to be valid in most important ways.

This distribution of total costs of these grants are shown in the stacked bar graph below with R01 (and R37) grants shown in white and all other mechanisms shown in black.

Examination of this graph reveals that this distribution is certainly not a normal distribution with more than approximately 1300 grants with annual total costs over $1 M. This leads to a large difference in the mean grant size of $407K and the median grant size of $333K. The R01/R37 distribution is much closer to a normal distribution with an mean of $380K and a median of $350K. The non-R01 distribution includes peaks corresponding to R03s and R21s at the low end the large peak above $1M at the high end.

For FY2013 (and FY2012) information is also available in NIH RePORTER for direct costs. The distribution of annual direct costs for the same collection of grants is shown below.

Note that this distribution is much more peaked with a large number of R01 grants with annual direct costs between $200K and the modular cap limit of $250K. For R01s, the mean annual direct costs is $258K and the median is $231K. Again, the overall distribution for all grants is quite skewed by the large grants with a mean of $289K and a median of $217K.

Comparison of the total costs with the direct costs for these grants reveals an overall indirect cost rate of approximately 44% of all grants and 48% for R01/R37s.

While more work is necessary to understand the differences between my numbers and the official NIH numbers, this data set an analysis provides an framework for comparing average RPG values with median grant (including R01) sizes and other parameters of interest to individual investigators.

So this would tend to support the conclusion that for the typical R01 holder, the last ten years have, indeed, seen an explosion in labor costs relative to the direct costs available to pay those labor costs, since the increase in average RPG size is all about giant non-R01 grants.

Perhaps, but I have not examined to what extent RPG growth is driven by large awards compared with R01s. I will do this but NIH RePORTER is down for the weekend for an upgrade (related to inclusion of greek letters) and only total costs are available for years before FY2012. Stay tuned...

As CPP correctly deduces, actual DCs available to R01 recipients are hovering around the modular budget cap, as they have for some time. Simply put, there ain't a whole lot of science to be done with a quarter mil' or less, once the salaries are paid.

[…] the distributions should be examined to understand these increases more fully, as discussed in an earlier post). The drop in award numbers reflects that fact that the total expenditures on R01s was $9.76 B in […]