Hey! New PI! Submit That R01 NOW!! (UPDATED)

Feb 06 2008 Published by under Careerism, Grantsmanship

As a new PI, your single most important task (by quite a margin) in the first three years of your faculty appointment is to obtain an R01 research project grant. Getting that first R01 is essential to the ongoing viability and productivity of your lab, and is also the single most important factor (for research-focused faculty appointments) in performance assessments generated in relation to promotion and tenure both internally and by outside letter-writers.
In light of this fact, PhysioProf has recently been discussing with some colleagues exactly when a newly independent PI should submit her first R01 application. Apparently, there is a lot of contradictory advice floating around out there, emanating from a variety of sources: senior colleagues, Program Officers, and fellow junior faculty.
The first step in assessing this advice is to consider its sources, and PhysioProf is going to be very frank here. Your senior colleagues are in denial about what is really happening right now as a result of severe budget problems, and are stuck in old ways of strategic and tactical thinking that just don't work any more. Program Officers are shell-shocked right now, spending the overwhelmingly vast amount of their time over the last four years talking to investigators whose careers are dying because they can't get funding. Under these extreme conditions, the only things a Program Officer has to tell you that are of use to you are (1) her impressions of the discussion of your grant at study section and (2) whether you are getting funded. (You do, however, need to at least pretend to take everything else they say very, very seriously as well.)
You can find out who to listen to, and what those people are likely to tell you below the fold.

The people who you should be listening to are those who are no more than a couple years ahead of you, and have been highly successful at getting R01s funded. These colleagues have figured out, through trial and error, what worked. And, just to be very clear, there are certainly multiple distinguishable tactics and strategies that can be effective. And what is effective surely differs to at least some extent between fields. The key is to listen to a bunch of different successful colleagues, and look for the common elements, as well as the elements that are specifically relevant to yor field.
Accordingly, you need to know that PhysioProf is speaking out of experience obtaining R01s in a very interdisciplinary collection of basic science fields amalgamated out of methodological and conceptual framewroks that address physiological function at all levels from genes, cells, tissues, organs, and, ultimately, intact organisms. Grant applications in this broad area are typically reviewed by the more cellular-and-molecular-focused study sections--specific for particular organ systems: brain, kidney, heart, eyes, etc--and assigned for funding to Institutes based on organ system.
So, what about some of the bad advice being promulgated by many Program Officers and senior colleagues? One thing I hear all the time is that new PIs are being told to submit only for R21s and R03s (much smaller, non-remewable grants than R01s) at first, in part because study sections will not want to give an R01 to a new PI until that PI successfully obtains and completes a smaller grant.
This is insaaaaane. The fact that a new PI has not completed any grants is totally irrelevant. Completing small NIH grants is not relevant to a study section's assessment of a new PI R01. They want to know that you are truly independent--i.e., not some super-post-doc in a big lab--but your PI faculty status with space, start-up, and institutional support, and the fact that you are no longer at the same institution as your post-doc advisor, establish this.
Furthermore, and even more important, R03s and R21s do not benefit from substantially looser paylines applied to new PI R01s. For example, the National Institute of Allergy and Infection Disease new investigator R01 payline is currently 14.0 %ile, while the regular payline is 10.0 %ile. R03 and R21 paylines are the same for new and established PIs. Those extra 4 %ile points are huge. New Investigator Applications also usually get their annual budgets cut less, and usually get the full duration requested, rather than a cut of one year or more.
(On a side note, new PIs should be applying for every possible private foundation and scholar award grant that you qualify for. This is very important for keeping the cash flow reasonable, and getting one or more of these awarded to you definitely will definitely be helpful with the study section.)
Another thing PhysioProf has heard is that new PIs are being told to seek out colleagues with more of a track record to collaborate with on a multiple PI R01. What are the possible benefits, and accompanying costs, to adopting this strategy?
NIH recently altered their grant system that an R01 can have more than one completely co-equal PIs, with the idea of encouraging more collaborative projects, as the allocation of street cred for possessing an R01 only to a single PI created a disincentive for collaborative projects. The only possible advantage to submitting a multiple-PI R01 would be a better score from study section, if it perceives that the two PIs together have a much better chance of making the proposed studies work than with you alone as PI, such as if they each contribute some special skill set to the project, both of which will be heavily relied on. Whether having multiple PIs would help increase the likelihood of funding depends on your own biosketch and the biosketch of the other PI.
A new PI might, however, fruitfully think more along the lines of getting someone more senior to play an advisory/consulting role on application. This can be helpful with study section in feasibility assessment, but such a person should be play a non-PI consultant role on the application, not list any person months of effort in the budget, and make it clear in their Letter of Consultancy that they would simply be providing occasional advice/guidance as needed, but that you, the PI, would be truly running the research project. This person should *not* be your former post-doc mentor.
How about disadvantages to multiple-PI grants?
(1) Only if *both* PIs are new investigators is the application considered a "New Investigator Application", thereby receiving both special consideration at study section (this is not so helpful in practice) and, most importantly, special consideration for funding by the assigned Institute, as described above.
(2) You need as much money as possible for your lab. The maximum modular budget you can request is $250,000 for five years. So long as you have two or three substantial aims, study sections do not pay any attention to budgets equal to or less than a maximal modular. They know it is almost certainly going to be administratively cut substantially (up to 45% over the 4-5 year life of the grant) and consider a full modular budget to be "standard".
Don't even think of not asking for a full modular budget. If your aims seem to narrow to support a full budget, add some science. You need *all* of that budget for *you* and *your* lab. You do not want to share any of this money with another PI and her lab.
(3) You need to establish clearly that you are, indeed, a successful independent PI as soon as you possibly can. One of the key ways to do this is by successfully competing for an R01. If you only have successfully competed for a multiple-PI R01, it could raise the issue of how independent you truly are with people who will be reviewing other grants of yours, as well as assessing you in letters of recommendation for promotion and tenure.
The upshot here is that it is only under very rare circumstances that the benefit for a new PI of submitting a multiple-PI R01 application outweighs the costs.
So what should the new PI be doing? You should be submitting your first R01 application as soon as is administratively possible. Those people telling you, for whatever reason, to wait, wait, wait: ignore them. If you are an assistant professor, with your own lab and start-up, and you have published in a related area as a post-doc, then waiting is nonsense.
You need to get your R01 in line with those of the rest of the new investigators. As it goes through the review process--almost certainly more than once--you will have plenty of time to produce a lot more preliminary data and refine your specific aims in resubmissions.
PhysioProf even wrote his first R01 at the very end of his post-doc, before he even opened the doors to his lab. The preliminary data was almost all figures from shit he published as a post-doc. It got triaged (not discussed at study section or given a priority score), but the practice writing an R01 (even a shitty one) and the insight into the review process provided by the summary statement were hugely valuable even though PhysioProf never even resubmitted that grant.
Bottom Line: Your single most important goal (by a substantial margin) as a new PI is to obtain a single-PI R01, as soon as possible, as this is the minimum standard for a self-sustaining truly independent research program. This is both for purely fiscal reasons--paying for personnel salaries and research expenses--and for building a reputation sufficient to support promotion and tenure. NIH understands this, and has a system in place to do everything possible to help new PIs get that first single-PI R01, including, most importantly, dramatically looser paylines. You should be doing everything in your power to exploit that system.
UPDATE: DrugMonkey has reminded me that R01 applications of new investigators that are not scored highly enough for award, may be converted into a one-to-two-year R56 bridge award to help the new PI generate more preliminary data, refine her specific aims, and resubmit a more meritorious application. This only applies to R01s, yet another reason that the new PI should be focused on R01s, not R03s or R21s.

24 responses so far

  • juniorprof says:

    I had no idea about the R56 bridge. That is over the top incentive!
    My impression is that more senior PIs are very averse to dropping a "dud" on study section. By "dud" I don't mean a poorly written or thought out grant but a grant that isn't nearly completed before it even gets funded. I am consistently amazed to see grants from my senior colleagues that have extensive preliminary data for nearly every single subaim of the project. This is nearly impossible for a junior investigator (at least someone in year 1 or 2 of startup); however, my impression is that senior PIs have a very hard time breaking themselves of this thinking when giving advice on when to submit an R01.
    I'll be sending mine in next deadline. Can't wait to get some pink sheets!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Do let us clarify a bit, juniorprof. The R56 Bridge is the ultimate "pickup" mechanism. A formalization and excuse for totally overlooking the study section review.
    The applicant does not apply and Program can decide to fund the proposal for any amount up to the proposed amount and for any duration (although typically 1 year I'd think).
    So one should not "count on" getting picked up. Still, this very mechanism re-emphasizes all the advice I give about getting to know your Program staff.
    Another caveat is that I've watched these things and they seem to break down three ways. Some very junior people are getting them en route to that first R01, sure. So are very senior people who can't seem to buy a good score, operate on one grant which, erp, didn't get a renewable score on year 25, etc. Also, what looks like very defined/current Programmatic interests for which they really need "that lab" to do the work.

  • sciencegirl says:

    So what is your advice to those who have a K22. I used the first year to generate preliminary data from my own lab, and have just submitted my first RO1 with a few months left on the K. Did I wait too long? I felt it was an appropriate amount of time in terms of really getting a good story going for an RO1, and think overall, because I wrote a better grant than I would have a year ago, that it was the correct thing to do for me. Of course, now I am stressed about the timing, and whether by the time (and of course, if) the RO1 gets funded I will be out of start-up.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Did I wait too long? I felt it was an appropriate amount of time in terms of really getting a good story going for an RO1, and think overall, because I wrote a better grant than I would have a year ago, that it was the correct thing to do for me. Of course, now I am stressed about the timing,

    sciencegirl, hopefully in all of this it is clear that ultimately you have to balance the variables in your own career. If you really didn't have an R01 "story", cool. And always better to start with a better grant application. The point is to recognize the process and the fact that there is essentially nothing you can do to enhance the chances of funding that is better than submitting the -01 so that you can get to the A1 stage.
    I just heard tell of Program telling someone with a recent K award not to submit an R grant. As a generic principle despite the fact that there seem to me to be sufficient pubs and prelim data for this person to get right on the stick with the R. This makes me cringe. and rant. a LOT.

  • Newbie says:

    I start a tenure track faculty position this fall and am preparing to write my first grant. I work in a field that is funded both by the NIH and the NSF. Is it better to apply for a New Investigator R01 from NIH or an NSF Career Award? I do have some preliminary results from my postdoctoral research that I can use in my first grant application?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Why does this have to be one or the other? Consider yourself lucky that you have two of the biggest funders to back your research and start applying!
    In practical terms, since I don't know NSF very well, when are the respective submission deadlines? If the NSF ones are less frequent than 3 times per year (plus RFAs) then make sure you hit the NSF deadline and schedule your NIH submissions around that.

  • whimple says:

    Last I heard, if (and only if) you are a New Investigator, you can same the identical proposal to both NIH and NSF.

  • whimple says:

    tip to writedit for this one:
    R01s and equivalents made up 70% of all new investigator awards in 1998. This percentage has been decreasing every year since until in 2007 it is down to 45%.
    In that same timeframe, R21s have increased from 5% in 1997 to 25% in 2007.
    The message seems pretty clear. Keep on sending in those R01s (there's still no application fee), but ignore R21s at your peril.

  • Anonymous says:

    R21's are good to submit for the feed back. Then go ahead and submit your R01. WTF am I doing here? My R01 is due today!
    The NIH deadline for new R01 is Feb 5th. But my lame University needs it to be submitted to them by the 29th. Is this just me or is this insane?

  • anonymous says:

    Has your advice changed now that only one resubmission is permitted?

  • anonforthis says:

    On the basis of this advice (which I also received from some mentor types) I Put my very first R01 in. It was scored, so I am happy.
    The challenge will be...now that we only have a single resubmission...should I try to cram in any changes by the next cycle deadline (november 5th) so I don't have to drop the pages down to 15? I guess it depends on the nature of the revisions...I don't want to piss away my only remaining shot with this. ahhhh decisions!

  • Desperately Seeking Funding says:

    I am a non-tenure track assistant professor that stayed at my institution after I did my postdoc. I just applied for my first RO1 and it got triaged (streamlined, unscored, etc.). One mistake was putting my postdoc PI's name on there as a collaborator, which I did on his recommendation that it would make the application more competative to have the support of a senior investigator. Do you have advice for those us who (unfairly in my opinion) are labeled as not-independent due being non-tenure track? Should I uproot my family and move them to another state to establish I am 'independent'? Quite frankly, that seems inane.

  • You are probably being perceived as still under your former PI's umbrella, and thus your R01 was considered an attempt by your former PI to rake in more funding for his own lab. Having him on the application as a collaborator surely reinforced this perception.
    What you need in your application are the following: (1) a letter from your former PI stating that she is not involved in your research and that you are fully independent and (2) a letter from your chair stating that you are fully independent and that you have been allocated X square feet of lab space that is wholly your own.
    Even with all of this, you are definitely fighting an uphill battle, competing as you are against R01s being submitted by PIs who are in inarguably independent tenure-track positions.

  • whimple says:

    Should I uproot my family and move them to another state to establish I am 'independent'?
    If this means getting a tenure track position, then yes, you should. Your non-tenure track position is a vote of no-confidence on the part of your institution. Back in the day of doubling NIH budgets, Universities could pull this scam. No longer. I vote you start looking for other employment early and often.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    anonforthis- answer is simple. Of course you put it back in for this Nov. Then you write a new one for Feb!
    Getting all torqued up about the single re-submission thing misses the point that you need multiple irons in the fire, especially when you don't have the first R01 yet.
    Should I uproot my family and move them to another state to establish I am 'independent'? Quite frankly, that seems inane.
    It is easier to do so, in some ways, but it is not an absolute requirement. There are puh-lenty of investigators who have done this, some of whom are nearing or past retirement.
    Sure, you have the independence hurdle. But you don't have the "post-doc without job and grant submission rights" problem. Nor do you have the "starting up a lab from scratch starting right now" problem.
    If I take it right, you got the highly expected StockCritique on a first submission, right? So saddle up, cowpoke, and address the critiques as best you can. CPP has some good advice. You can also write some response narrative in the Intro and in the personnel justification (and likely the Prelim data) that talks about your independent areas of focus and expertise within the larger lab group.
    As I always say, your goal here is not to overwhelm the confirmed critic. It is to give your advocate something to work with. It doesn't have to be the world, just something. The best argument you can make for 1) what you've done that shows you are capable of being a PI and 2)that this is not just a puppet-master job of the BigWig.

  • Desperately Seeking Funding says:

    In response to Whimple: I have not yet sought a tenure track position, so the idea that my position is a vote of no-confidence from anyone is your own prejudice speaking. I was promoted to persuade me to stay, but the title is unimportant to me. I stay because I have secure funding from a private foundation-for a grant I wrote as a postdoc-and can run my research group which I have trained over the last five years and do my research without any interference. Why would I leave a fully funded independent in practice position until I absolutely have to?

  • Desperately Seeking Funding says:

    DrugMonkey: Thanks for the advice. I haven't received the summary statement yet but will address the concerns as best I can when I see it and resubmit.
    CPP: Thanks for the advice as well. I have such a letter from my former PI. I'll get the department head to write one for the resubmission. I'll just leave the former PI's name off of my future applications.

  • whimple says:

    In response to Whimple: I have not yet sought a tenure track position, so the idea that my position is a vote of no-confidence from anyone is your own prejudice speaking.
    Be that as it may, similar prejudices on the part of your reviewers, however ill-founded, will doom any application you submit. Why don't you ask your institution to convert you over to tenure-track?

  • Desperately Seeking Funding says:

    Whimple: I have a few research commitments that I want to finish before I start my job search, and I don't want to stay at my institution for my next position. Becoming tenure track at my current institution wouldn't solve your 'perceived' problem anyway, with my previous mentor still at the same institution. My thinking was that while I was finishing up, I might as well apply for funding now that I have the status to do so. I have written funded applications in the past-fellowships and an application for my previous PI, so I thought that while my intitial RO1 submission certainly wouldn't be funded, it had a chance of being reviewed and providing useful guidance for future applications. I have three other applications submitted to various funding agencies, by the way. So if the time investment pays off, I will be more competative in the rather sparse job market. If, as you say, I have wasted valuable time applying with the expectation that I would receive objective consideration and feedback, I have at least learned what non tenure track faculty can expect from the peer review system.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    similar prejudices on the part of your reviewers, however ill-founded, will doom any application you submit
    This is false and demonstrably so. I know of R01's funded to many individuals who are not only in larger groups under a big-name PI but have received the "not independent enough" knock on initial review. These individuals stuck with it, put in their revisions with their (let's face it total BS) chair letters of support and got their grants eventually. THis is related
    I have also mentioned that early in my study section experience I queried a person on the panel (at dinner) over why they would issue the independence knock. This was for a proposal which the person seemed to like very much. The response was that it was intended to *help* the applicant extort what they needed from the institution....sigh.

  • Desperately Seeking Funding says:

    Thanks, DrugMonkey. That's encouraging.
    DrugMonkey: The response was that it was intended to *help* the applicant extort what they needed from the institution....sigh.
    Interesting, but I can at least see a bit of logic in that. I've been told that I'd have no problem getting a tenure track position at my current institution if I get an RO1, but I haven't asked for that in writing. I'll see if the department head will commit on paper for the resubmission, even if it isn't binding. Not that I would stay anyway.

  • Pinus says:

    Wow, with help like that, no wonder things are so rough.

  • Venu says:

    Would appreciate if you can tell me the requirements for type 2 (competing renewal)Ro1 applications. Should my previous RO1 be active when I apply? can it be on no-cost extension, for how long? Can I still submit a competing renewal for an application that has been terminated? Are there advantages going as a competing renewal compared to a brand new one? Thanks for your replies everybody.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Should my previous RO1 be active when I apply? can it be on no-cost extension, for how long?
    There is no "should". All depends on your situation. If you want to continue the funding seamlessly, then you need to assume at least two rounds of review. So start from your finish date and work backwards. Say it was for an April 1 start. You'd want your A1 going in the prior July. These days summary statements are coming out fast so you might be able to risk the -A0 submission going in the prior March but it really should be the prior Nov (i.e., 1 year and 5 mo prior to end date) to be safe.
    Can I still submit a competing renewal for an application that has been terminated?
    "There is no time limit"
    Are there advantages going as a competing renewal compared to a brand new one?
    Some institutions have formal (and informal) P&T rules that respect renewal of a grant over the acquisition of a new one. The stats would indicate that renewals have a higher success rate but then again there is a huge selection bias factor at work there. YMMV.

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