An RBR Writing Program post by Torrey Truszkowski
Stagnant National Institutes of Health budgets and increasing competition for grants have made sustaining a steady lab budget a difficult and time-consuming endeavor. Declining success rates for NIH grant applications mean that scientists are submitting more grant applications but also revising and resubmitting more reviewed grant applications. The cycle of grant application submission and resubmission takes significant time from the conduct of science.
Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research at the NIH, and his team investigated how the submission and resubmission process affects lab productivity. In their analysis, productivity is measured using the Relative Citation Ratio. By assessing how many citations a paper receives relative to others in the same field, the RCR provides an assessment of the importance of individual papers. The current study focused on papers linked to R01-equivalent grants awarded between 1998 and 2003 to give ample time for the generation of publications and subsequent citations. The authors compared the productivity among grants funded on their initial submission, A0, the first revision, A1, or the second revision, A2. The A2 was discontinued in 2012, but current NIH policy allows for revisions of an A1 to be submitted as an A0, a “virtual A2.”
Using the RCR to compare publication outputs of NIH R01-equivalent grants, the authors observed the expected bell curve: a small number of grants have very high or very low associated RCR scores and most are in the middle impact. Importantly, RCR-measured productivity of A0, A1 or A2 R01-equivalent grants was not significantly different.
This analysis is an important readout of productivity relative to grant success, but one concern about the current analysis is the dataset. The data used are from grants funded during the 1998-2003 NIH budget doubling. From 1998-2003, the success rate averaged 31 percent, while from 2010-2015 the success rate averaged 18 percent. This suggests that the funding climate now is more competitive and it takes more attempts to get a grant. While a historic analysis can give us information about effects over time, today’s funding climate is starkly different and how well the productivity trends from over a decade ago compare to those today is not clear.
The efficient conduct of research and generation of knowledge is critical for research enterprise sustainability. While apparently not harming productivity, the grant resubmission cycle extracts costs from other aspects of the conduct of research. Each submission and resubmission diverts a faculty member’s time and energy away from mentoring and the running of the lab. Furthermore, due to the time consumed by grant revisions, resubmission and review, more labs are enduring lapses in NIH funding, which some analyses have shown can reduce the chance of receiving subsequent NIH grants.
The analysis discussed here suggests grant review improves subsequent grant applications. This analysis shows that the overwhelming number of funded grants are highly productive. However, when considering sustainability of the research enterprise, the long resubmission process affects the livelihoods of individual scientists and the continuation of their lines of research. Reliable and sustainable funding increases are needed to avoid these unnecessary disruptions to scientific progress.
Torrey Truszkowski is concerned about the sustainability of science, both from within the scientific community and as research is disseminated to the public. Torrey is currently completing her Ph.D. at Brown University in Neuroscience. She hosts Nerd Nite RI and was featured in Research Matters! at Brown. Torrey can be reached via Twitter (@TorreyTruszko) or email (email@example.com).