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Does my priority score mean I will get funded? Career development and fellowships

Dr. Robin Barr
Robin BARR,
Director, DEA,
Division of Extramural Activities (DEA)

Maybe you are a graduate student, a postdoc, or a new junior faculty member. You have carefully crafted a fellowship application or a career development application. Now, you sit on pins and needles hoping to hear that reviewers love what you propose and that the NIA will make an award.

But wait! I wish that happy conjunction (reviewers love it, the NIA funds it) were always true. But in these times, it can happen that reviewers love it, but the NIA does not have the money to fund it.

For fellowship and career development awards the unhappy conjunction (too much reviewer love for the money) also makes funding decisions particularly tricky.

I will try to explain.

Priority score is not the only factor influencing funding.

Help! How do I get my priority score?

Priority scores are typically available in your NIH eRA Commons account a few days after applications are reviewed.

Priority scores run from 10 (best) to 90 (worst). A fellowship (F, or NRSA) application considered in fiscal year 2013 and given a score of 10 has a 100% chance of getting funded. You really knocked it out of the park if you got a 10—congrats! Same thing with scores of 15 or 17 in fiscal year 2013: 100% chance of getting funded. For career development (K) applications the situation looks the same. Very low (good) scores have a 100% chance of getting funded. Yes. Most funding is by priority score.

But things change right around the payline. For fellowships in fiscal year 2013 to date, some folks with scores around 20 did not get funded, while those with of 21 or 22 did. And for fiscal year 2013 career development awards to date, about half of applications with scores of 17 or 18 got funded. Not all, not none, but half.

Why does that happen?

We award fellowships to predoctoral fellows, students in MD-PhD programs, and postdoctoral fellows. In tough times, when we are making relatively few awards, it can happen that going in strict order of priority scores would mean no grants to any MD-PhD students, or none to postdoctoral fellows. Program balance then means making awards a little out of priority score order.

Similarly, career development awards are a mix of different kinds. Funding decisions based solely on priority score might mean no pathway-to-independence (K99) awards or no patient-oriented (K23) awards.

Our fellowship and career development funding decisions also are influenced by the same research priorities that influence our funding for other kinds of grants. For example, health disparities is an important area for the NIA. So, our program staff may identify a close-to-the-payline application that focuses on health disparities and select that one to be paid over another application with a similar priority score.

So, we balance our awards by making difficult choices with applications that received scores very near the payline.

We try to even things out over the course of the fiscal year.

How many applications did the NIA fund?

Data for the past 10 years on applications reviewed, applications awarded, and success rates by NIH Institute and funding mechanism are available from NIH RePORTER.

Keep in mind that the NIA, like other NIH Institutes, has three rounds of funding every fiscal year. Within the constraints I’ve described, we strive for a cumulative distribution of funding in which applications with low (good) priority scores get the funding they deserve.

We hope that by the end of each fiscal year, we can find the resources to fund additional applications that might otherwise have been left out. But we do protect different kinds of training and different kinds of researchers. Sometimes these considerations mean funding a little outside of what priority score would indicate, even across the full fiscal year.

Have I answered all of your questions? Please get in touch with me by commenting below.

Career Development Awards Pay Lines