— Drug Monkey (@drugmonkeyblog) September 20, 2016
The R21 Mechanism is called the Exploratory/Developmental mechanism. Says so right in the title.
NIH Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Program ( Parent R21)
In the real world of NIH grant review, however, the "Developmental" part is entirely ignored in most cases. If you want a more accurate title, it should be:
NIH High Risk / High Reward Research Grant Program ( Parent R21)
This is what reviwers favor in my experiences sitting on panels and occasionally submitting an R21 app. Mine are usually more along the lines of developing a new line of research that I think is important rather than being truly "high risk/high reward".
And, as we all know, the R01 application (5 years, full modular at $250K per annum direct costs if you please) absolutely requires a ton of highly specific Preliminary Data.
So how are you supposed to Develop an idea into this highly specific Preliminary Data? Well, there's the R21, right? Says right in the title that it is Developmental.
But....it doesn't work in practice.
So the R01 is an alternative. After all it is the most flexible mechanism. You could submit an R01 for $25K direct costs for one year. You'd be nuts, but you could. Actually you could submit an R03 or R21 for one $25K module too, but with the R01 you would then have the option to put in a competitive renewal to continue the project along.
The only thing stopping this from being a thing is the study section culture that won't accept it. Me, I see a lot of advantages to using shorter (and likely smaller) R01 proposals to develop a new line of work. It is less risky than a 5 year R01, for those that focus on risk/$. It has an obvious path of continuation as a genuinely Developmental attempt. It is more flexible in scope and timing- perhaps what you really need is $100K per year for 3 years (like the old R21) for your particular type of research or job type. It doesn't come laden with quite the same "high risk, high reward" approach to R21 review that biases for flash over solid workmanlike substance.
The only way I see this working is to try it. Repeatedly. Settle in for the long haul. Craft your Specific Aims opening to explain why you are taking this approach. Take the Future Directions blurb and make it really sparkle. Think about using milestones and decision points to convince the reviewers you will cut this off at the end if it isn't turning out to be that productive. Show why your particular science, job category, institute or resources match up to this idea.
Or you could always just shout aimlessly into the ether of social media.