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I'm a molecular biophysicist in a biochemistry department. In a college of medicine. And I'm funded by the NSF. Not too sure my dean likes that... I'm here to blather on about things that interest me and to raise the average age of the bloggers here by at least 1.2567 years. And I'm Australian.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Funding illusionsProf-like Substance has a really nice summary of the real costs involved in giving someone (e.g. a grad student) a raise. This is in response to a discussion over at DrugMonkey's. Go read both posts.

In his post PlS points readers at the NSF's funding info page - anyone even fantasizing about applying to the NSF should have a look there. In the comments section to PlS's post, lylebot pointed out:

The link to the NSF funding info page is interesting, but I’m not sure I understand where the numbers are coming from. It gives funding rates of 20-40% for programs that I know are much lower.

I added the emphasis.

That's a great point. I "know" from my experience on NSF review panels that the funding rate is much lower than 20%. And yet that's not what the "official" numbers are saying. Where does this discrepancy come from?*

Buggered if I know, but that won't stop me from speculating...

And this is speculation, so take it as such.


So in my particular area the funding rate that everyone "knows" would be much closer to 10-15% than the ~20-30% listed on the NSF's funding info page. That's the funding rate we have in mind when on a panel. It's the funding rate bandied about by reviewers and PO's alike.

One possible source for this discrepancy might be that the ~10-15% funding rate we "know" really just applies to new applications, and not renewals. The funding rate for renewals is certainly higher than that for new applications. I'm not so sure about this explanation though. One would think that the distinction between funding rates would be made clearer and that we'd be talking about two rates rather than one.

Perhaps the discrepancy comes about because the ~10-15% we "know" applies only to the proposals we're reviewing. The "unknown" 5-15% may well include proposals we don't review. Now I'm not suggesting here that the NSF has some secret stock of research proposals they have decided should receive funding without peer-review. There are however "proposals" that aren't peer-reviewed. Here I'm thinking about the various supplements available to NSF-funded investigators (e.g. REU and RET supplements). You do need to submit a "proposal" to get one of these, but it's not reviewed per se. Or rather, it's the PO that reviews it. And I suspect the success rate is very, very high for these.** Such supplements are submitted via FastLane, NSF's online proposal submission and review system. I believe all funding data is also handled through FastLane - certainly supplements I've received are listed on there. Is it possible the NSF's funding info page simply pulls that data automagically from FastLane? If so, up goes the funding rate. Indeed, if supplements are included in the count, my personal funding rate at the NSF is a whopping 82%!

And of course there are grants other than research grants given out by the NSF. Those in the US may well have noticed that some of the kid's programs on PBS are funded in part by the NSF (e.g. Fetch and Cyberchase). One wonders what NSF Directorates fund these "non-research" grants*** and what the funding rates are.

So what's the bottom line here? It's not clear what the research grant funding rate is. The sort of data supplied on the NSF's funding info page is confusing. Dear NSF, can we have it broken down into useful nuggets? Please?






*The NSF is not alone with these funding rate "discrepancies." We all "know" that NIH funding rates are in the toilet. Single digit numbers have been discussed at great length. Yet, at least at NIGMS, the official numbers appear much higher...

** I've always received the REU supplements I've applied for. In fact, I've never heard of someone having one turned down. Of course that's just my experience.

*** Before you're tempted to whine in the comments that NSF should only be funding science research, go read their strategic plan. It is mandated that they do far more than just fund research. If you have a problem with that, and I personally do not, go whine at your congresscitter.

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Maybe the high funding rate means that 20-40% of proposals eventually get funded, not necessarily in a single cycle. One a PO from the NIH gave a talk here and said that over 50% of proposals eventually get funded, so their funding rate is 50%!

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Could be, but I don't think so.

I see this has been tweeted as NSF says it funds 20-40%, "real" numbers are closer to 10-15%, why the discrepancy? That's not quite what I was trying to say. I don't know what the "real" numbers are. I suspect the NSF would argue their reported numbers are the real ones. They probably are. It's more a matter of what I and other perceive as the funding rate versus the NSF's reported numbers.

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In the NIH system there is a similar confusion, brought about by at least two factors. First, NIH publishes / brags on their Success Rate defined as

Success rates are defined as the percentage of reviewed grant applications that receivefunding. They are computed on a fiscal year basis and include applications that are peerreviewed and either scored or unscored by an Initial Review Group. Success rates aredetermined by dividing the number of competing applications funded by the sum of the totalnumber of competing applications reviewed and the number of funded carryovers1.Applications having one or more amendments in the same fiscal year are only counted once.

that nice little trick of counting revisions submitted in the same FY boosts the numbers but throws variability based on when exactly the revision was submitted, etc.


second, published or rumoured "paylines" are often thought to be synonymous with what we might think of as the funding rate but this is not so. the payline is inevitably conservative. it represents what they *know* they can fund based on their budget, and without considering the particulars of how expensive a given grant is (including variable indirect costs across Unis). Once those are set, they take a look at their remaining budget for that round (or the entire FY) and pay out a bunch more awards. So the apparent funding rate is always going to exceed whatever an Institute or Center of the NIH publishes in advance as their payline. *Furthermore* the payline is based on a percentile rank which is baselined against a rolling 3 cycles of review. So if the current round of apps perform really well or poorly against the prior two, again the percentile rank is not well-aligned with the chances of getting funded.

In short, it is the PI's poor understanding of the various numbers that is the problem with thinking "gee, why are NIH success rates so much higher than my subjective impression of funding rate?"

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Agreed - I do think it's a matter of not understanding how the numbers come about. Unfortunately I can't find an analogous description to the one you posted for the NIH for the NSF.

Madhusudan Katti

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I found this post - which echoes my own thoughts - while looking for NSF's grant funding rate and getting confused by the info on their page precisely for the reasons you mention. So thank you.

What led me to seek out this information in the first place? A blog post I felt compelled to write tonight in response to a new initiative from the Republican congresscritters just gearing up to take back congress! Have you seen it? Care to share your thoughts as well?

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