DEB Numbers: Historical Proposal Loads

Last spring we posted on the per-person success rate and pointed out several interesting findings based on a decade of DEB data. We were seeing a lot of new PIs and, conversely, a lot of PIs who never returned after their first shot. And, the vast majority of PIs who managed to obtain funding are not continuously funded.

This post is a short follow-up to take a bigger picture look at submission rates.

Since preliminary proposals entered the scene, DEB really hasn’t seen much change in the submission pattern: 75% of PIs in any year submit one preliminary proposal and the other 25% submit two (and a small number submit three ideas in a year, if one also counts full proposals to special programs).

Before the preliminary proposals were launched, we ran some numbers on how often people tended to submit. The results were that, in the years immediately prior to preliminary proposals (~2008-2011), around 75% of PIs in a year were on a single proposal submission (25% on two or more). Fewer than 5% of PIs submitted more than two proposals in a year. Further, most PIs didn’t return to submit proposals year after year (either new ideas or re-working of prior submissions); skipping a year or two between submissions was typical. These data conflicted with the perceptions and anecdotes that “everyone” submitted several proposals every year and were increasing their submission intensity. Although recent data don’t support those perceptions, we still wondered if there might be a kernel of truth to be found on a longer time scale. What is the bigger picture of history of proposal load and submission behavior across BIO?

Well, with some digging we were able to put together a data set that lets us take a look at full proposal research grant submissions across BIO, going all the way back to 1991 when, it seems, the NSF started computerized record-keeping. Looking at this bigger picture of submissions, we can see when changes have occurred and how they fit into the broader narrative of the changing funding environment.

Total BIO full research grant submissions per year (line, right axis) and proportions of individuals submitting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or more proposals each calendar year from 1991 to 2014. (Note: 2015 is excluded because proposals submitted in calendar year 2015 are still being processed at the time of writing.)

Total BIO full research grant submissions per year (line, right axis) and proportions of individuals submitting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or more proposals each calendar year from 1991 to 2014. (Note: 2015 is excluded because proposals submitted in calendar year 2015 are still being processed at the time of writing.)


1990s: Throughout the 1990s BIO received about 4000 proposals per year. This period of relative stability represents the baseline for more than a decade of subsequent discussions of increasing proposal pressure. Interestingly, the proportion of people submitting two or more proposals each year grew over this period, but without seeming to affect total proposal load; this could result from either increasing collaboration (something we’ve seen) or a shrinking PI pool (something we haven’t seen). At this time NSF used a paper-based process, so the cost and effort to prepare a proposal was quite high. Then….

2000s: In 2000, FastLane became fully operational and everyone switched to electronic submission. BIO also saw the launch of special programs in the new Emerging Frontiers division. In a single year, it became easier to submit a proposal and there were more deadlines and target dates to which one could potentially submit. The new electronic submission mechanism and new opportunities likely both contributed to increased submissions in subsequent years.

Following the switch to FastLane, from 2001 to 2005, total annual submissions grew to about 50% above the 1990s average and stayed there for a few years. This period of growth also coincided with an increasing proportion of people submitting 2+ proposals. Increasing numbers of proposals per person had only a limited effect on the total proposal load because of continued growth in collaboration (increasing PIs per proposal). Instead, the major driver of proposal increases was the increasing number of people submitting proposals. This situation was not unique to BIO.

This period from 2001 to 2005 was the rapid growth that sparked widespread discussion in the scientific community of overburdening of the system and threats to the quality of merit review, as summarized in the 2007 IPAMM report.

Eventually, however, the community experienced a declining success rate because BIO budgets did not go up in any way to match the 50% increase in proposal submissions. From 2005-2008 submissions/person seemed to stabilize and submissions peaked in 2006. We interpret this as a shift in behavior in response to decreasing returns for proposal effort (a rebalancing of the effort/benefit ratio for submissions). It would have been interesting to see if this held, but….

2009/2010: In 2009 and 2010, BIO was up another ~1000 proposals over 2006, reaching an all-time high of nearly 7000 proposal submissions. These were the years of ARRA, the economic stimulus package. Even though NSF was very clear that almost all stimulus funding would go toward funding proposals that had been already reviewed (from 2008) and that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, there was a clear reaction from the community. It appears that the idea of more money (or less competition) created a perception that the effort/benefit relationship may have changed, leading to more proposals.

2011: We see a drop in 2011. It is plausible that this was the realization that the ARRA money really was a one-time deal, there were still many more good proposals than could be funded, and that obtaining funding hadn’t suddenly become easier. As a result, the effort/benefit dynamic could be shifting back; or, this could’ve been a one-time off year. We can’t know for sure because…

2012: Starting in 2012 IOS and DEB, the two largest Divisions in BIO, switched to a system of preliminary proposals  to provide a first-pass screening of projects (preliminary proposals are not counted in the chart). This effectively restricted the number of full proposals in the two largest competitions in BIO such that in 2012, 2013, and 2014 the full proposal load across BIO dropped below 5000 proposals per year (down 2000 proposals from the 2010 peak). The proportion of individuals submitting 2+ full proposals per year also dropped, consistent with the submission limits imposed in DEB, IOS, and MCB. PIs now submitting multiple full proposals to BIO in a given year are generally submitting to multiple programs (core program and special program) or multiple Divisions (DEB and [IOS or MCB or EF or DBI]) and diversifying their submission portfolios.

In summary, the introduction of online and multi-institutional submissions via FastLane kicked off a decade of change marked by growth in proposal submissions and per-PI submissions to BIO. The response, a switch to preliminary proposals in IOS and DEB, caused a major (~1/3) reduction in full proposals and also a shift in the proportion of individuals submitting multiple proposals each year. In essence, the pattern of proposal submission in BIO has shifted back to what it was like in the early 2000s. However, even with these reductions, it is still a more competitive context than the 1990s baseline, prior to online submissions via FastLane.

One thought on “DEB Numbers: Historical Proposal Loads

  1. Pingback: Friday links: #realisticindianajones, the CIA vs. faculty meetings, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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