A0, A1, and A2 R01 Awards from 2003-2013

Jun 25 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Few science policy topics have led to as much discussion as the NIH policy with regard to the number of amendments allowable for grant applications. This policy originated from the NIH Enhancing Peer Review draft report. Figure 8 in this report shows that the fraction of R01s that were funded in their original submission (A0) had dropped from more than 60% during the doubling years to less than 30% in 2007 with a concomitant increase in the fraction of A1 and, particularly, A2 applications that were funded. These data, some other analyses, and anecdotes from study sections, suggested that study sections were "queuing" applications, giving better scores to A2 applications since these was these application's "last chances."

The Enhancing Peer Review report proposed "consider(ing) all applications as new" so that there was no reason for study sections to treat applications differently based on their amendment status. Organizations including FASEB did not support this proposal. In order to help decrease the time between the initial submission and the time of funding for applications that would eventually be funded, the NIH countered by eliminating the option of A2 submissions.

From my perspective, this proposal would have been sensible in times of reasonable paylines. However, since this proposal was adopted, paylines have continued to fall (except during the ARRA years) to the point that the variability in scores means that two chances may not be adequate, even for outstanding proposals. I wrote a column about this for ASBMB today entitled "On deck chairs and lifeboats".

After resisting pressures from many in the scientific community for years, the NIH recently reversed course and now will allow an application that did not get funded in A1 form to be resubmitted as a new A0 application without restriction. This policy is a hybrid of the old policy and the initial proposal from the Enhancing Peer Review report. To my knowledge, NIH has not provided much guidance into the analysis that led to this reversal other than statements of concern about the impact of the "No A2" policy on early stage investigators.

As I thought about this policy, I realized that I had never seen data about the differences between new (Type 1) and competing renewal (Type 2) applications. Type 2 applications, in general, score better that Type 1 applications due, in part, to the fact that only applicants that have been relatively successful submit renewal applications. The differences can been seen in an NIGMS Feedback Loop post that revealed that (for the January 2010 Council round in FY2010) 50% of the Type 2 applications scored better than the 20th percentile compared with less than 30% of the Type 1 applications, even those from established investigators.

Below are plots of the number of NIH-wide R01 awards for Type 1 and Type 2 awards as a function of amendment status for FY2003-FY2013:

Type1-2 plot-2

The curves showing the mix of A0, A1, and >A1 (almost all A2) applications for Type 1 and Type 2 awards are remarkably similar, with comparable rises in the fraction of A2 awards from FY2003 to FY2009, followed by a drop to essentially zero due to the "no A2" policy. The results for Type 1 and Type 2 awards are compared directly in the plot below which shows the fraction of A0 awards out of total awards for each type.

A0-Total plot

In FY2003, the fraction of A0 awards among Type 1 grants was slightly larger than 0.5 whereas that for Type 2 was higher at approximately 0.6. As these fractions dropped, rose, and then dropped again, these two fractions are more equal near 0.45 in FY2013.

Closer examination of the first graph reveals another important point.  In FY2003, there were 4564 Type 1 awards and 2618 Type 2 awards. By FY2013, these had dropped to 3403 Type 1 awards and 1390 Type 2 awards. Note that these are new and competing awards, not all R01 awards (which would include non-competing (Type 5) awards). The drop in the number of Type 1 awards is 25% whereas the drop in the Type 2 awards is nearly twice as large (47%). One can speculate that this drop in the number of competing renewal awards since the ARRA bump may be a driving force in concerns expressed in recent years by established investigators about the direness of the funding situation.

What accounts for these decreases in the number of awards? Of course, the NIH appropriation has not grown substantially since FY2003 and has dropped substantially when corrected for inflation. However, the average R01 sizes (total costs in nominal dollars) increased by 24% for Type 1 awards and only 16% for Type 2 awards (although 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 FY2003 and was $9.80 B in FY2013 whereas the overall NIH appropriation was $26.74 B in FY2003 and $29.13 B in FY2013, that is, the fraction of the NIH budget going to R01s has decreased over this period.

15 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I was under the impression some ICs had rules in place limiting how much a Type 2 budget could increase relative to the last year of funding. That might explain the difference in average grant size escalation.

    • datahound says:

      Good point. It should be relatively straightforward to check that.

    • Ola says:

      Correct. For modular budgets, no more than a 1 module increase per cycle. I made the rookie mistake of having my first R01 in 2003 funded at 200, which meant it took almost a decade until I could even apply for the full 250 modular budget. Nowadays it seems everyone just automatically asks for full modular regardless of whether they actually need it all.

  • girlparts says:

    The last three successful applications I've been involved with were "picked up" on the A0 after being reviewed on the A1. Has there been an unofficial policy of making A0 funding rates look higher in this way, without actually decreasing the time from submission to funding?

    • datahound says:

      I doubt this is policy-related. It is more likely related to delays in the appropriations process. Applications that do well as A0s often cannot be funded in a timely way because Congress has not yet appropriated funds so that NIH does not know how much money it has to invest. In the meantime, an A1 is submitted and then reviewed. Once the appropriation is known, NIH starts awarding grants and may prefer to award the A0. One of my favorite sayings is attributed to Napoleon: Never assume a conspiracy when incompetence can explain the observation.

      • drugmonkey says:

        Whether it is done to artificially enhance the A0 rate or not, it is FANTASTIC if programmatic pickups are being used to fund things faster. I heartily endorse anything the NIH does to reach backward to the just-barely-missed apps from prior Council rounds and to fund them in subsequent rounds.

  • Dave says:

    the fraction of the NIH budget going to R01s has decreased over this period.

    So where is the money going? Can this be easily quantified?

    • datahound says:

      Some of the factors may be new mechanisms (such as the Pioneer and New Innovator), growth in the intramural program, and growth in larger mechanisms such as Centers. This can be quantified although it is not completely straightforward. Sounds like a new Datahound project...

  • Ryan says:

    Very interesting analyses. Could the reduction in the Type 2 R01s also be related to the "early retirement" phenomenon that we hear so much about, where established investigators are leaving science earlier than expected due to shrinking pay lines? In my field, I've heard that approximately 40% of investigators with R01s are over 60 years-old, which is setting off panic because a lot of Early Stage Investigators have been eaten up by the budget problems of the past decade. At my institution alone, we have 4 PIs with either one or two R01s who will not be submitting competitive renewals because of retirements. It will be interesting to see how these numbers change with demographic and policy shifts.

    • datahound says:

      Interesting thought. I can check to see if data on success rates for Type 2 R01 applications are available. This could help distinguish if the number of awards is dropping because of decreased submissions or lack of funding due to competition from more Type 1 applications.

    • drugmonkey says:

      Remember the structural issues here with Type 2s. There is a fixed number of possible Type 2s and an unlimited number of Type 1s that can come in for consideration. As each Type 2 flails out at the A1 (or previously A2) stage, it is gone forever from the pool of potential Type 2s.

    • Joe says:

      I hadn't heard anything about an "early retirement" phenomenon among established investigators nor about any resulting panic. Why would there be a panic? I have heard a number of old guys say something like "This will be my last R01." as they are submitting an R01 in their early to mid 60s, or saying that they are not going to try to renew one. I also heard about a couple of guys saying that they wanted to "get out of the way" of the new investigators.
      I wonder if a number of old guys are considering retirement now because they put it off when the stock market dropped and are finding it feasible since the stock market recovery. Even if there are a number of retirements of established investigators coming, it seems unlikely that it would be enough to greatly affect the success rates for younger investigators.

  • […] a comment to my recent post, Dave asked how the fraction of the NIH appropriation going to different areas of NIH activity […]

  • […] a recent post, I looked at the distributions of A0, A1, and A2 awards for new (Type 1) versus renewal (Type 2) […]

  • […] a previous post about R01s, I noted that the fraction of the NIH budget going to R01s decreased over the period […]

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