Assessing Spring and Summer Research Activity Levels at NIAID

Funding News Edition: September 16, 2020
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NIAID issued emergency funding opportunity announcements to generate a surge of research applications related to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.

Credit: NIAID

Several weeks ago, Dr. Michael Lauer, NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, wrote a blog post titled “An Early Look at Applications Submitted During the Pandemic.” In the piece, he identifies the inflow of grant applications as a useful marker of the extramural community’s level of research activity and explores recent totals for changes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Lauer found an increase in the volume of NIH grant applications submitted between May 1 and June 5, 2020, as compared to the same period of time in previous years. While researchers report declining productivity due to the pandemic’s impact (e.g., institutional closures), researchers’ ability to develop and submit grant applications appears less encumbered.

What About NIAID Specifically?

The number of research project grant (RPG) applications submitted to NIAID from March 1 to July 31, 2020, far exceeds the volume of applications received by NIAID over the same period of time in 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively.

Figure 1: Number of competing RPG applications received between March 1 and July 31 in four consecutive years

Number of competing RPG applications received between March 1 and July 31 in four consecutive years

From 2019 to 2020, the count of competing RPG applications increased by 33.3 percent.

R01 and exploratory/developmental research project (R21) grant applications make up more than 90 percent of incoming RPG applications. The next figure displays application counts for these two activity codes.

Figure 2: Number of competing R01 and R21 applications received between March 1 and July 31 in four consecutive years

Number of competing R01 and R21 applications received between March 1 and July 31 in four consecutive years

An 80.1 percent increase in R21 grant applications from 2019 to 2020 drove the overall rise in RPG applications. R01 applications exceeded previous years’ totals as well, although the 8.5 percent increase from 2019 to 2020 follows the trendline for recent years.

We also found a significant change in whether RPG applications were solicited or unsolicited. The chart below displays the dramatic swing toward solicited RPG applications in 2020.

Table 1: Percentages of solicited and unsolicited RPG applications received between March 1 and July 31 in four consecutive years

Percentages of solicited and unsolicited RPG applications received between March 1 and July 31 in four consecutive years

Outside the RPG category, but still noteworthy, the number of small business (SB) grant applications doubled from March through July 2020 relative to that same time period in 2019.

Figure 3: Number of competing R41, R42, R43, and R44 applications received between March 1 and July 31 in four consecutive years

Number of competing R41, R42, R43, and R44 applications received between March 1 and July 31 in four consecutive years

Thus far, we’ve considered the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on researchers’ ability to submit applications. Generally speaking, it appears the flow of grant applications has continued unabated.

However, we’d be remiss not to recognize that NIAID is the primary institute responsible for research related to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.

Throughout the spring and summer months, we’ve issued emergency funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) and notices of special interest (NOSIs) to encourage a surge of research applications related to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, most notably an R01 and R21 FOA pair that generated an unprecedented application response.

Figure 4: Number of competing RPG applications received between March 1 and July 31 by FOA type and solicitation status

Number of competing RPG applications received between March 1 and July 31 by FOA type and solicitation status

Applications to our COVID-19 FOAs account for most of the increase in RPG applications we received from March through July in 2020, and likely account for this year’s swing toward solicited applications as well. We received an additional 160 applications related to SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 through other FOAs, including 126 unsolicited RPG applications submitted in response to COVID-19 NOSIs. Note here that we counted applications as related to SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 if the application’s title includes terms like “COVID” or “SARS-CoV-2.”

All told, the total number of RPG applications we received this past spring and summer increased significantly because NIAID is the focal point of the extramural community’s research response to the pandemic. We received 2,912 RPG applications from March through July that were not explicitly related to COVID-19. That total is slightly less than the overall application counts in 2017 (2,934 applications), 2018 (2,975 applications), and 2019 (3,183 applications).

Returning to the original question, what can we infer about the extramural community’s research activity based on application totals? Overall, investigators have stayed busy. Those researchers whose expertise is relevant to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 have likely been more active these past six months.

Limitations of the Information Presented

In this article, we considered application counts, which is only one indicator of researcher activity. As cited by Dr. Lauer, survey results described in Unequal Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Scientists evince that biomedical research scientists have experienced substantial reductions in productivity.

Next, counts of RPG applications, by definition, exclude the non-RPG applications NIAID has received during the COVID-19 pandemic, like fellowship and career development award applications. Additionally, the data presented above includes only Type 1 (new) and Type 2 (renewal) applications; it does not capture other application types received by NIAID during the pandemic, most notably Type 3 (competing revision) applications.

As Dr. Lauer notes in his blog post, submitting an application takes months of prep work. In this sense, applications submitted this spring that are unrelated to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 may be a lagging indicator of work completed in the months before the pandemic. We’ll continue to monitor this data through the fall and winter months and explore additional activities that the Institute funds.

Stepping back, NIAID has leveraged an assortment of funding mechanisms and resources in response to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, including our intramural laboratories, NIAID-supported clinical trial networks, and existing research and development contracts. Funding new research project grants is an important aspect of the Institute’s response to the pandemic, but it is only one part of our strategic plan.

Investigators With Childcare Responsibilities

Dr. Lauer’s blog post acknowledges that, within the biomedical research workforce, women with young children appear to have been disproportionately affected by reductions in productivity brought on by the pandemic.

NIAID offers Primary Caregiver Technical Assistance Supplements (PCTAS) to support postdoctoral research scientists who are taking care of a child or sick family member. The supplements provide additional funds for NIAID grantees to hire a mid-to-senior level technician to fill in when a caregiver needs to be away from the lab. See the Primary Caregiver Technical Assistance Supplements (PCTAS) (Admin Supp, Clinical Trial Optional) FOA to learn more.

Also, watch Work, Life, and COVID: The Balancing Act of Women in Science for a panel discussion that addresses the effects of being a parent or caregiver and scientist during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contact Us

Email us at deaweb@niaid.nih.gov for help navigating NIAID’s grant and contract policies and procedures.

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