Wednesday, October 7, 2009

New NSF stats

NSF just released their funding stats for 2008 (now that it's almost 2010) and throughout the document they make comparisons back to 2001. If you are applying to NSF anytime soon the document is worth looking over, but there are a few trends that jump out right away.

1) It should be no surprise to anyone that overall funding rates are down from 2001, but only by 6%. The total successful funding rate in 2008 was 25% for all PI's, with women being 27% successful and a rate of 25% for men. In a stat that hits close to home, "new" PIs only had a 19% success rate. In this case, "new" refers to any investigator who has not previously had an NSF grant as a PI (meaning that Doctoral Improvement grants and Postdoc fellowships don't count). I don't know whether this is due to experience or something more along the lines of the issues at NIH that Drugmonkey has been discussing, but it is certainly not receiving the kind of attention that the similar NIH phenomenon has been.

2) There is also a large disparity between NSF's Top 100 (the 100 most funded PhD-granting programs) and everyone else. Among researchers at a Top 100 university, the success rate was 27%, whereas it was 18% everywhere else. Obviously the confounding factor here is that one can argue that the people with the most successful or promising research will end up at a Top 100 university and also be more competitive for funding, but I thought it was an interesting observation.

3) The number of funded multi-investigator grants has increased marginally, but the number of funded single-investigator proposals has dropped by nearly 25% between 2001 and 2008. One might assume that the focus on collaborative research might push the multi-investigator grants up at the expense of individual grants, but this doesn't seem to be the case unless the number of PIs per grant has gone up from two to >2, but those data are not provided.

4) One thing that I found very surprising was the number of grants per PI. In the fiscal years 2006-08, 83% of PIs had one grant! That left 13% with two grants, 3% with three and 1% with four or more. As someone who has three very different projects that they are trying to get funded and has been talking with a colleague about a fourth, I'm not sure what to make of those numbers. If nothing else, it concerns me that reviewers might balk at a proposal just based on the number of grants held by a PI. Now, I'm not thinking that everything I am submitting will eventually get funded in the next year, but if these projects weren't fundable in my opinion, I wouldn't be wasting my time. Perhaps people who have served on a couple of panels (*cough* Odyssey? *cough*) might shed some light on the perception of when someone has "too much" funding.

5) Anyone on the postdoc market also won't be surprised to hear that whereas the number of senior personnel and grad students supported has gone up by 52% and 23%, respectively, the number of postdoc positions supported on grants has actually dropped by 10% since 2001! This stat sucks for a lot of reasons, but makes it clear where the squeeze is in terms of positions right now. Congrats, here's your PhD and your Dairy Queen visor!

6) Yet another stat that might be expected: it's getting harder to get grants on the first or even second try. The average number of times a proposal gets submitted before it gets funded is up from 1.8 to 2.2. Not a massive jump, but it reflects the fact that fewer grants are being funded on the first go and more are going back in for a third round.

7) Finally, good reviews are not what they used to be. The number of declined proposals that scored very well is up in a big way. In fact 1 in 4 proposals that receive an "Excellent" rating are not being funded. 57% of proposals that are rated between very good and excellent are declined and if your proposal falls in the range of good to very good, your chances of getting money are only 12.5%. So, even if your proposal is rated in the highest category there is still a 20% chance you will get back your reviews and scratch your head to figure out how the hell you are going to make improvement for the next round.

Take it for what it's worth, but it's data that you may be able to use.


  1. Funny, I was just reading it too. Nothing substantive to add (nice summary Proflike) because I couldn't get past the lousy figures.

  2. The captions on some of those graphs are borderline useless, but overall there is a lot of information jammed in there. I think the rate if funding for well-reviewed grants was the tidbit that left me wondering the most.

  3. I promise a substantial comment (without Excel figures!) when I get back from *cough* nowhere relevant. *cough*

  4. The last panel I was on was a joke. We had something like 15 proposals to review. The program manager (PM) basically said that she would be lucky to fund one. We did the usual panel thing and discussed them all. I have no idea whether she funded any of the proposals.

    One of the proposals was submitted by someone who basically was fully funded to do something else, but wanted to try something interesting. The PM stated that she would not fund this person if there were other people who needed funding. I argued that if the science was excellent science, we should fund them; and she argued back that they didn't need the funding, so they shouldn't be asking for more money. I was shocked! I asked her about tenured professors, and she (who is a tenured professor when she is not at NSF) said that tenured professors basically shouldn't ask for money, since they are fully funded. I was horrified! I argued that professors hire graduate students and are (on occasion) exceptional scientists who may be publishing a HUGE amount more than others who she is giving money to. She said that she basically didn't care.

    So, the lesson that I took from that is that sometimes NSF is like welfare for scientists. I found this to be totally depressing. But, it seems like it fits the data - if you already have funding, don't come knocking.

    I can't really complain, since I have 1.5-2.5 grants from NSF, depending on how you count the money and collaborative research projects. I feel like I am doing exceptionally well. I definitely won't ask for more.

  5. Comment on the decline in postdocs: from 2001 to 2008 there's been a huge upswing in the number of computer science PhDs (from about 900 in 2001 to nearly 1900 in 2008), and I assume that is an indicator of a corresponding increase in NSF funding for CS. Postdocs are much, much less common in CS than in other fields. So there is some possibility that the relative paucity of postdocs in CS explains a great deal of that NSF-wide drop.

  6. I'm not sure that the CS funding, by itself, would have that kind of effect. It may be part of the trend, though. Another possibility might be the soaring cost of health care, which the PI often must pay for postdocs but not for grad students. I know where I am, the costs outside of salary for postdocs is 67% of the salary. So, say you par a PDF $45K. Now add 67% for benefits and take that total and add 49% for overhead. Suddenyl yo're paying $112K per year for a postdoc. How many grad students could that pay for? I assume for some people, the math makes them choose grad students.

  7. Holy crappy proof-reading! You get the idea....