Competitive advantage for early career researchers with previous NIH funding

By Kelsey Hampton

Intense competition for a limited amount of federal funding has long been a reality for biomedical researchers. In a post on the Open Mike blog, Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the National Institutes of Health, and his team examined the pool of research project grant applicants to determine what proportion of RPG awardees had received previous NIH funding in the form of fellowship, training or career development (F, T or K, respectively) awards. This investigation found that applicants with prior NIH support are increasingly likely to be successful in receiving RPG support.

In a previous article, Lauer demonstrated the number of unique RPG applicants has grown steadily since 2003 while the number of awardees has been relatively stable. The current post breaks down these numbers to examine the applicant pool, their NIH funding history, and their subsequent success in obtaining RPG funding. The data showed that while applicants previously supported by an F award are more likely to obtain an RPG, the proportion of F awardees applying for RPGs has dwindled since 2003. Applicants previously supported by a T award now represent a larger population of successful RPG awardees than in previous years. Lastly, applicants with previous K funding have been increasingly more likely to obtain RPG funding.

The authors then integrated the data from all F, T and K award-supported applicants into one graph of overall RPG success. RPG applicants with one or more F, T or K awards represented roughly 50 percent of RPG awardees, and this has been stable since 2003. From 2003 to 2010, of all F, T and K awardees to apply for an RPG, 51 percent had unsuccessful RPG applications were successful. This percentage began to fall in 2010 and is now at just over 40 percent, indicating F, T or K awardees have been more successful at obtaining RPGs in this time than those without prior NIH funding.

While the trends depicted by these graphs are clear, there are opportunities for further examination. Raw numbers would be a useful addition to understand how much each of the training programs account for observed trends. A complement to this would be a description of the remaining 50 percent of RPG awardees. For example, how many of the remaining 50 percent are non-U.S. citizen awardees who were ineligible for training awards?

In full, these data demonstrate a competitive advantage conferred by NIH trainee and career development awards to early career researchers. With an increasing number of scientists competing for a stable level of funding, the NIH appears to be increasingly selecting for a pool of scientists that have already obtained NIH funding.

headshot2Kelsey Hampton wants to help improve the biomedical research system, and she believes that the best way to do this is to foster communication between researchers, policymakers and the public. Kelsey can be reached via email ( or Twitter (@kelseyrhampton).

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