Wealth Inequality in Distribution of NIH Funding to Rural States
Much conversation has occurred regarding increasing wealth inequality over the years in the United States. We wished to examine this issue with respect to National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding. Substantial increases have occurred in NIH funding over recent years. According to SfN’s congressional testimony on NIH funding, the agency’s budget has grown by $9 billion in the past six years. While many have acknowledged the value of this increased investment in research, colleagues at smaller institutions have anecdotally not noticed a major change.
We examined whether relevant data could address if there is, indeed, an increase in wealth inequality in NIH-research funding across institutions in the United States. NIH funding was sampled across four contiguous states— states chosen to allow a diversity of more heavily-funded universities, as well as those with smaller universities— Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. To assess this across different eras of NIH funding, we examined fiscal year 2003, during which NIH had its highest increase in funding of 16.5%. We also examined FY 2011 and FY 2013, in which NIH had its largest decreases, 1% and 5%, respectively). We also examined FY 2006, as a midpoint between these eras, and compared these to FY 2021.
When comparing the top three funded institutions across all four states, to the total funding of all of the other institutions across all four states (a total of 56 institutions with funding in 2003, decreasing to 44 in 2021), the proportion of the total funding going to the top three funded institutions was remarkably high, but remained consistent across every sampled year between 2003 and 2013, ranging from 53.86% to 56.99%. Interestingly, it appears that the constriction of funding occurring in 2011 and 2013 was distributed fairly evenly across larger and smaller institutions. In fact, the two years with decreases, 2011 and 2013, had the lowest proportion of funding going to the top three institutions (54.26% and 53.86%, respectively) within this time frame.
However, in 2021, the proportion of funding going to the top three institutions increased to a remarkably high 62.6%. Nearly two thirds of funding across all institutions in these four states went to the top three institutions. When comparing the increases in funding between 2013 and 2021, the top three institutions saw an increase in funding of 86.17%, while all of the other institutions in the four states in aggregate saw an increase of 29.86%, which is marginally higher than the change in the adjusted dollar between 2013 and 2021. This sampling of the data does raise the concern for increasing wealth inequality across universities in NIH funding, with the more recent increases in overall NIH funding going almost exclusively to the top few institutions. This would need to be examined on a national scale for confirmation, while also tracking factors such as changes in numbers of faculty over the years to better understand these changes.
The reasons for the changes need to be explored. One contributor to these changes could be an increased emphasis on the scores for institutional environment and the investigator in peer review. Moreover, collaborations occur within states where smaller institutions partner with and utilize the infrastructure at larger institutions. It is not clear how such relationships are reflected in the available data.
The investment in major NIH initiatives concentrating on technological innovations may also be contributing to this disparity, which would give larger institutions with major infrastructure an advantage in obtaining funding with these initiatives.
One might argue that such disparity in funding is best for overall research, as these larger institutions are more capable of producing results. However, it is unclear how this would relate to such a change between 2013 and 2021, while there was no such change in the previous decade.
Furthermore, evidence disputes this argument. Fortin and Currie (PLoS ONE 2013; 8(6): e65263) examined scientific impact of researchers in three disciplines funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, tracking number of articles published, number of citations to those articles, the most cited article, and the number of highly cited articles. They concluded that funding strategies that target “diversity” rather than “excellence” are more likely to be productive. Aagaard et al (Quantitative Science Studies 2020; 1:117-149) examined literature over the past 20 years on the relationship between the size of research grants and scientific performance, and also argued strongly in favor of increased dispersal, citing stagnant or diminishing proportional returns for the relationship between grant size and research performance.
The question of distributing increases in NIH funding to a broader spectrum of the scientific community, rather than those in a select few institutions, deserves further exploration and consideration. This has the potential to not only improve equity but may also serve to be more productive.