The bottom line here is that looking at the actual numbers can be handy when playing the latest round of “We had it tougher than you did” at the w(h)ine and cheese hour after departmental seminar. Success rates end at an unusually low point…and these numbers stop in 2008. We’re seeing 15% for R01s (only) in FY2011.
Things are worse than they’ve ever been and these dismal patterns have bee sustained for much longer. If we look at the ~30% success rates that ruled the day from 1980-2003, the divergence from the trend from about 1989 to 1996 was interrupted in the middle and, of course, saw steady improvement in the latter half. The badness that started in FY2004 has been 8 unrelieved Fiscal Years and shows no sign of abatement. Plus, the nadir (to date) is much lower.
Anyone who tries to tell you they had it as hard or harder at any time in the past versus now is high as a kite. Period.
And for those who like figures:
If you are under ~45, the funding environment you inhabit is radically different than that which senior faculty experienced: back then, even first-time PIs were much successful thirty years ago (22% versus 14%). And once you got your foot in the door, funding rates for the most part were double what they are today.