Two years ago, I posted an analysis of the distributions of the sizes of R01 awards from NIH and the relationship of this distribution to the cap of $250,000 direct costs on applications submitted with modular budgets.
The recent activity with regard to compensation for post-doctoral fellows got me thinking about this topic again. Here, I update the analysis with data from fiscal year 2015. The distribution of R01 annual total cost sizes (for a total of 22588 new (Type 1), competing renewal (Type 2) and non-competing renewal (Type 5) awards) is shown below:
Unlike the corresponding plot from fiscal year 2003, this distribution is decidedly not Gaussian. It is bimodal with peaks near $330K and $380K and has a broad tail extending from approximately $420K to $800K. The bimodal nature was subtly present in the distribution for fiscal year 2013 but is now much more pronounced. The tail had grown substantially from fiscal year 2003 to fiscal 2013 and appears to be approximately the same size in the fiscal year 2015.
This distribution can be analyzed further since RePORTER now includes information about direct costs in addition to total costs. The distribution of annual direct costs is shown below:
Examination of the direct cost data reveals several important points. First, the bimodal distribution is present just at and below the modular cap of $250K. Thus, it is not the modular cap that is leading directly to this split distribution, but rather some other factor as will be discussed below. Second, the median for the overall distribution is exactly at the modular cap level. Thus, it appears that half of the funded R01s were submitted with modular budgets and the other half were not.
What is responsible for the bimodal distribution? One possibility is that is has to do with the number of years for which the grants have been in existence. Examining the distributions of the years of support for the first peak (from $190K up to but not including $230K) and the second peak (from $230K to $250K) reveals no difference with a correlation coefficient of 0.9986.
A second possibility is that the bimodal nature is due to different policies from different institutes and centers with regard to cutting awarded grant budgets. The number of grants in the second peak ((from $230K to $250K) versus the number of grants in the first peak ((from $190K to $230K) for each institute and center is shown below:
This plot clearly shows that differences in institute behavior is responsible. Some institutes such as NHLBI (HL), NIAID(AI), NIMH (MH) and NIDCR (DE) have many more grants in the peak with larger grant sizes, consistent with the fact that these institutes have tended not to cut grant budgets when the grants are first awarded. Other institutes such as NIGMS (GM), NCI (CA), NINDS (NS) and NIDDK (DK) have more grants in the peak with smaller grant sizes, consistent with the fact that these institutes have tended to make such budget cuts.
It is remarkable that this bimodal behavior has emerged from just a hint in the data from fiscal year 2013 to absolute clarity two years later. At NIH, each institute is given considerable autonomy to make and implement such policies.The clean separation of these two groups of institutes strongly suggests that the cap on modular budgets is distorting grant sizes because many applications are submitted at the modular cap level and then cut upon award by the funding institute or center. Furthermore, these data reveal some consequences of this where, for example, similar grants awarded by NINDS and NIMH could be funded at substantially different levels.