First, the total number of NIH-funded investigators (green line is the total; data from here):
Second, the funding rate per R01-type grant (R01s are the typical academic lab grant; data from here):
Rub these two figures together and you get this:
The problem isn’t the overall funding, it’s that the NIH (and to a lesser extent, the NSF) have created an unsustainable system built around a cheap supply of graduate students and post-docs (especially since the idea that they work only forty hours per week is ludicrous)….
So how is it unsustainable? Well, at some point, all of these cheap workers eat their spinach, grow up big and strong, and want to sit at the grownups table. Unfortunately, the NIH model doesn’t allow for enough PIs (grownups). So funding for R01s has become really tight. A lack of leadership by the funding agencies is critical here: there wasn’t (and barely is today) any comprehension that the constant generation of new PhDs is unsustainable, that at some point, the perpetual motion machine stops moving. NIH needed to realize that the increase of funds, if not managed responsibly, would increase the PhD ‘birth rate’, while there was no equivalent increase in either positions or in the PhD ‘death rate’ (retires).
It’s worth noting that the massive increase in funding between the mid-1990s and 2004 did nothing to increase funding rates. Not surprisingly, as PhDs in circulation rose, when the music stopped, funding rates plunged. This was both predictable and predicted.
And to end this depressing post on an uncharacteristically happy note, I offer you this funding advice: