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NIH Data Show Fat Cats Alive and Well


The notion that some biomedical researchers are piling up research grants simply isn't true, says the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) extramural chief. But a relative handful of so-called fat cats still exist.

In a post yesterday on her blog Rock Talk, NIH's Sally Rockey takes on the "myth" that some investigators have large numbers of grants. A decade ago, in the midst of a 5-year NIH doubling, administrators took a close look at "fat cats," or researchers who had six or more grants, and concluded there was no problem with overextended researchers or duplicated work. Rockey's data show that the number of grants per investigator rose steadily during the doubling, peaked around 1.3 to 1.5 grants in 2004-2006 (depending on the type of institution), and has since drifted downward.

That's not to say that fat cats don't exist, however. In a second graph for the top 20% funded principal investigators (presumably about 6000 people), Rockey reports that while the average principal investigator (PI) had 2.2 grants in 2009, roughly 10% (600) had four grants; 3% (180) had five; 1% (60) had six; and a few had seven or more. (For some specific numbers, see Fig. 28 on p. 66 in this 2008 report on NIH peer review, which appears to have data from 2006. At that point 573 people had four grants; 156 had five grants; 39 had six grants; 12 had seven grants; and four had eight or more grants.)

The same 2008 report recommended that NIH require that PIs spend at least 20% of their time on each grant (which would limit their total grants to five) unless researchers could justify an exception.