Few NIH policy issues have elicited as much discussion and passion as the elimination of the option of submitting an "A2" application. This policy had its roots in the NIH "Enhancing Peer Review" process. During this process, NIH staff presented the data below, demonstrating that the mixture of A0, A1, and A2 applications within the pool of funded R01 grants had been shifting dramatically in the post-doubling period with the fraction of R01s funded at the A0 stage dropping from near 60% to below 30%.
These data demonstrated increasing inefficiency in the NIH funding system as applications that were quite likely to be funded eventually were being queued up with A1 and, particularly, A2 applications receiving better scores and getting funded in preference to A0 applications that "had more chances" to come in for reconsideration. These data, together with other analyses and discussion, led the Enhancing Peer Review committee to recommend that the NIH "consider all applications be being new." This proposal was not well received by the scientific community including FASEB. Instead, NIH announced that only a single amended application would be allowed and proposals not funded after two attempts would have to be "substantially re-designed."
After implementation of this policy, many in the scientific community raised concerns about its consequences, in part through a petition with more than 2000 signatures. Nonetheless, NIH Deputy Director of Extramural Research Sally Rockey and NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak posted a progress report showing that the policy "was working" including the figure below:
The key point from this figure was not that the percentage of A2 applications in the funded pool was dropping (this was inevitable given the policy) but rather that the percentage of A0 applications was increasing while the percentage of A1 applications was essentially static.
Much to everyone's surprise, in April, NIH announced a reversal of this policy, allowing unsuccessful A1 applications to be resubmitted without the need for any change as new, A0 applications.
What might have been the basis for this change? I extended the data analysis through fiscal year 2013 (when the new policy was announced) as shown below:
These data show that, in the three years after the initial progress report (shown with darker lines), the trends had changed with the percentage of A1 applications in the funded pool surpassing the percentage of A0 applications. The percentage of A0 applications in the funded pool was only slightly over 40% (even with no A2s), well below the 60% historical value.
These data are just for new (Type 1) grants and not for competing renewal (Type 2) grants. For completeness, I present the results for both Type 1 and Type 2 grants, going back to 1991 (when data are first available in RePORTER) to 2014 below:
This graph reveals that the distributions were relatively stable before and during the NIH budget doubling. Then the percentage of new (Type 1) A0 awards fell dramatically with the competing renewal (Type 2) A0 drop lagging by a year or two. The curves for Type 1 and Type 2 awards have been essentially coincident since the implementation of the "No-A2" policy and its elimination. It will be interesting to see how these curves evolve although the new policy with new, new applications and recycled new applications will introduce some lack of clarity about interpretation.