From the latest entry at the Rock Talk blog we find out the truth(r)!
These are data for the investigator-initiated Research Project Grants only and exclude the ARRA largesse. It shows the number of applications received in 1998 (25,000) and then the gradual increase to just under 50,000 applications for the 2011 FY. The color breakdown is for the number of increased applications that they attribute to increased numbers of applicants versus increased numbers of applications from existing PIs. I am not entirely sure how these numbers were calculated but the post indicates an increase from an average of 1.2 applications submitted per investigator to an average of 1.5 per investigator from 1998 to 2011. This relates in some way to the red band in the figure. This surprised many of us on the Twitters. I don't think I know of any active scientists who are submitting less than several NIH grant applications per year. If I did know of them I'd be kicking their butts! However, if we harken back to some data on either the NIGMS feedback loop (probably) or the Rock Talk blog (maybe; UPDATED, it was RockTalk) which showed the average NIH PI had only about 2 grants concurrently then we must consider that there are still a LOT of folks out there on a single grant at a time. Especially if they have long-term continuations going, sure, maybe there are a lot of PIs who only have to submit an application once every 5 years.
The post also indicates that there were 19,000 applicants in 1998 and this grew to 32,000 in 2011. Some 13,000 new mouths, a 68% increase in PIs seeking money from the NIH. Wowza. As always, we have a sort of fuzzy appreciation of what has been going on with the NIH / extramural research force relationship but seeing these numbers really brings it home.
These numbers make it really hard to sustain the notion that the "real problem" is greedy individual PIs who are receiving too many awards, for which presumably they have to submit more applications. The "real problem" is clearly that we have too many mouths to feed. The solution, consequently is not to further squeeze and constrain the good PIs with budget cuts, dismal success rates and limits on the number of grants, or grant dollars they can hold at a time.
The real solution is to make some hard decisions about which PIs to chase out of the system on a lasting basis.
By this, of course, I mean which type of PI, what size research operation, what type of environment. What do you think Dear Reader? What types of investigators would you advise the NIH to exclude? How are they to make a serious dent in the 68% overage of PIs?