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The Black Hole

Looking south: The NIH’s 2015 fiscal outlook


By signing this fiscal years’ (FY) appropriations bill in the United States, the American president has provided greater certainty about the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) 2015 budget. The forecast is not positive, and uncertainties of year-to-year appropriations cycles in the U.S. continues to make it challenging for organizations like the NIH to develop long-range fiscal strategies that are predictable and sustainable. I have been on the receiving end of this uncertainty more times than I care to remember and it is an incredibly stressful and wholly undesirable position to be in. This year will not be much better.

While appropriations are expected to increase modestly compared to FY 2012, budget allocations across the board are not keeping pace with inflation and will likely remain below the pre-sequestration watermark. Overall success rates and funding rates for NIH research and training grants by mechanism and selected activity codes are summarized in the NIH Data Book. Also included is a graph of new (type 1) R01-equivalent grant success rates by career stage of the investigator.

To clarify, success rate calculation is carried out after the close of each FY, and is based on the number of applications funded divided by the number of applications reviewed, and expressed as a percent. This calculation is adjusted by removing revisions and correcting for projects where the resubmission (A1) is submitted the same year as the original application (A0), to better reflect the funding of unique research applications. Because applications that do not meet the pay-line or are not “percentiled” are still factored into the success rate calculation if they are funded, as is sometimes the case when institutes exercise their “select pay” option (see below), success rates can be higher without changing the pay-line. This is why it is possible to have a success rate of 20% but a pay-line at the 7th percentile, and there are arguments that both should be published together. The success rate for a particular FY is a reflection of the funded applications and therefore includes applications reviewed in the previous FY, which can further increase the reported success rate when compared to the pay-line, which encompasses only applications reviewed in that FY.

In the case of the National Lung Heart and Blood Institute (NHLBI), special efforts have been made to increase pay-lines above pre-sequester levels for research project grants (RPGs), early-stage investigator (ESI), and fellowship and career development awards, although the increases have mostly been marginal.

Increases to the National Lung Heart and Blood Institute funding, by category.
Increases to the National Lung Heart and Blood Institute funding, by category.

To help further buffer select research groups against this period of austerity, Institutes have continued to award a limited number of grants for highly meritorious R01 projects that fall short of the pay-line yet address critical scientific gaps in Institute program priorities, termed the “select pay” option. There is value to this since a recent study by Danthi et al has shown no monotonic association between percentile ranking and scientific impact as assessed by citation metrics. In the case of the NHLBI, there is still a $3-billion investment portfolio that the institute expects to fall back on to maintain present funding levels through the near term (as is true for the NIH in general), although what will happen if appropriations in future years do not increase is anyone’s guess.


Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the Founder and CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon Founded Platelet BioGenesis where he served as CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. Before Platelet BioGenesis Dr. Thon was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
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