Bring back the 2-3 year Developmental R01

Sep 19 2016 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH funding

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.

41 responses so far

  • Doctor D says:

    I agree. The 6 page r21 rarely provides sufficient detail for reviewers. I advise new investigators to use small R01s instead of R21s

  • drugmonkey says:

    Actually the page limits are not my issue with respect to this.

    Do any of the people you advise try this?

  • Ola says:

    You missed a bit... "Explain to your chair how you left good money on the table by not applying for a max allowed". It's not just study section cultur that has to change.

  • I-75 Scientist says:

    I like this idea. I would love to try it. Being new, I think I have some good ideas now for a shorter time period, but needing that 250 level of funding per year. This would also go a far way in my mind for helping new folks get funding.

    But as Ola brought up, its the local culture that also needs to change. "If a grant isn't covering 5yrs of salary it's not worth it" is a recurring theme.

  • Tommy says:

    NIAMS is trying something like this. See the RISK mechanism they recently put out.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The I in 'RISK' stands for Innovation. I suspect this is in the opposite direction from what I am thinking here.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "projects that are considered too risky, premature, controversial, or unconventional for other NIH mechanisms. "

    - this is R21 on steroids. I want something that recognizes the early stages of normal, solid work.

  • Tommy says:

    perhaps, but it is nonetheless a 2 year exploratory R01.

  • Emaderton3 says:

    I think this is a great idea. R21s have become harder to get than R01s, and they are often technology-driven (at least what I have seen in my limited experience and have been told by my mentoring committee). Not to mention the whole "you do not need much preliminary data" for a R21 which is a complete farce. R03s provide such little money that they are just not a very attractive option. If anything, the R03 could be redefined in this manner perhaps?

    That being said, you have to do what you have to do. I actually have a R03 right now, and I have a R21 pending review. While the effort that went into these was less than a R01, it was still quite substantial, and I often wonder whether it was worth it. Not to mention they do not really help me in any significant way as far as securing more personnel for the lab, yet there is more work to do . . .

    An interesting side note on the R21--I was told that the funding for this particular PAR will come from the R01 pot of money for this particular institute.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Tommy- I'm talking about Developmental, not Exploratory.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Another problem with R21 is timeline- if you are working on the topic, generating Prelim Data and eventually pubs you run past the R22 stage. If you don't time it right, your -A1 is hosed

  • SidVic says:

    I like the idea. Would not recommend it for first RO1- just enuf rope to hang yourself but not sufficient to launch career. If PO got on board, they might push smaller proposal at council?

  • baltogirl says:

    Last year I tried to apply for a small R01- two years of less-than-modular money to accomplish something solid, important, and with preliminary data that indicated a very good chance of success. A small, self-contained project.
    It was triaged with the major criticism being that I had not already accomplished the very thing I was asking for money to do.
    More and more, an R01 seems to need to contain the entire contents of an unpublished paper as "preliminary results". (Of course, this really messes up your people's CVs, to leave their work unpublished for so long. I have not been willing to sacrifice them.)
    I agree with the small R01 principle, but I won't be doing it again as study sections are clearly just not on board.

  • Grumble says:

    "More and more, an R01 seems to need to contain the entire contents of an unpublished paper as "preliminary results"."

    That is precisely correct. I am just about to submit an R01 to fund my grad student's research project. He has been working on it for 5 years and is about to submit the paper (after which he will write his thesis and graduate). The R01 will have just enough preliminary data to have a shot at success.

    Do the work, then write the grant. It's the system.

    With his "we should encourage 2 year developmental R01s," DM is demonstrating his facility for arranging the flowers in the Titanic's first class lounge. Meanwhile, the iceberg is just ahead. We need a radical change of course.

  • jmz4 says:

    @grumble
    If it was implemented broadly enough, would it not fix the problem?

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Wish GM supported R21s even. Seems like a lot of exploratory/discovery dollars are geared towards big descriptive projects, like ENCODE stuff.

  • baltogirl says:

    Grumble, if you have postdocs rather than grad students it really screws them not to publish. They don't have any papers from your lab! And so I let them publish even though the grant had to be resubmitted.
    But now, having to resubmit with no personnel left to generate new unpublished papers, I have many fewer preliminary results to put into a new proposal. It is weak compared to the first version.
    I am really worried this is a downward spiral from which I - and many others in my position- won't ever be able to recover.
    The "tinyR01" concept would indeed help us, but I agree that it is floral arrangement given the current culture at CSR.

  • Grumpy says:

    I don't really get all this timing talk.

    Is it really that big of a deal if you replot data from a recently published paper and put it in your application and call it preliminary data? I did that on the one NIH grant application I managed to get awarded so far. Should I feel lucky I didn't get "caught"?

  • Grumble says:

    Grumpy - If you've published the results, you can't propose the experiment in a grant. If you haven't published, you can show some part of the results and propose to do the rest of the experiments.

    jmz4 - So the solution is to have people write lots of tiny little grants rather than lots of big grants? No, that won't solve the problem.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Is it really that big of a deal if you replot data from a recently published paper and put it in your application and call it preliminary data?

    Not at all. But this is tricky for the cycle of grant revisions. If you get a decent score and are close, it is not that smart to make wholesale changes. But it also takes 9 months between submissions. That's a lot of time for you to continue to make progress and of course the ultimate goal here is to publish papers. So you can end up in a situation where something that was really key to the proposed work is now not just nearly completed but published. An R01 presumably has more in it in terms of the proposed work so any one paper may not be as large a fraction. An R21, otoh, is presumably describing less work.

    FURTHERMORE, there is a tipping point for an R21 in terms of your research plan being high risk, exploratory or even developmental versus being pretty much proven to be a valuable vein to mine. "This is no longer an R21" is something that I've seen in grant review.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Do the work, then write the grant. It's the system.

    tch, tch. this runs afoul of the anti-lobbying provision if you've used the prior grant exclusively to try to support the next proposal. careful now.

  • Curiosity says:

    Where does prepub biorxiv stuff land on the published vs not scale vis a vis grant preliminary data?

  • jmz4 says:

    So the solution is to have people write lots of tiny little grants rather than lots of big grants? No, that won't solve the problem.
    -my understanding was that this is what is happening now.
    Alternatively, as DM said, writing a short duration, limited finding R01 gives you a shot at a renewal, which have much higher funding rates. If the expectation, for these small R01s was that they didn't need too much preliminary data, then you could use the first two years to generate data for the renewal (which I just realized I assumed could be bumped up to a full R01 at the renewal).

  • ecologist says:

    I am curious about the discussion of already-published preliminary data. "Preliminary" is a context-dependent adjective. Suppose I'm writing a proposal on bunny-hopping. It seems like my string of publications on gerbil-hopping is, in the context of this proposal, useful preliminary data to show that the protocol works for measuring hopping. And my published study on comparative locomotion of small mammals is, in the context of my bunny-hopping proposal, preliminary data that shows how the measurements on bunnies will generalize across species. And so on.

    Sure, some preliminary data might be just like what I propose to do, but what about these other contexts? I'm curious.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Preliminary data are all of the above. Not sure what you are asking?

  • dsks says:

    "Do the work, then write the grant. It's the system.

    tch, tch. this runs afoul of the anti-lobbying provision if you've used the prior grant exclusively to try to support the next proposal. careful now."

    Brings to mind the Wells Fargo fustercluck, that. The chiefs at WF knew what the rules were, but nevertheless created an environment of incentives that made it v. difficult for the people down the pipeline to follow those rules and be successful at the same time. Although at least those bastards were doing it for self-gain rather than sheer bureaucratic inertia.
    The NIH is supposed to be taking on a major component of the risk in scientific research by playing the role of investor; instead, it seems to operates more as a consumer, treating projects like products to be purchased only when complete and deemed sufficiently impactful. In addition to implicitly encouraging investigators to flout rules like that above, this shifts most of the risk onto the shoulders of investigator, who must use her existing funds to spin the roulette wheel and hope that the projects her lab is engaged in will be both successful and yield interesting answers. If she strikes it lucky, there’s a chances of recouping the cost from the NIH. However, if the project is unsuccessful, or successful but produces one of the many not-so-pizzazz-wow answers, the PI’s investment is lost, and at a potentially considerable cost to her career if she’s a new investigator.

    So it goes.

  • lurker says:

    Multiple BSDs have told me the same advice to make the scope of your 4/5year R01 to have aims/experiments that appear to take all those years, but could also be feasibly done in 1year if could magically train and direct all your lab staff to work on the one project, because you'll also need to show 3yrs worth of prelim data on how feasible the project results will be (or already are).

    So yeah, its true, our system is defacto: "do the work (maybe even publish the paper), then write the grant." I am really surprised a seasoned PI like DM would feign illusions on this.

    A 3-yr R01 will not change this farce. It will only get us faster to the race towards the bottom, make the grant churn even worse than it already is. Myself and a colleague have been encouraged by the PO's to apply for a 3yr-R01, but the colleague who got one (I did not) now finds it will hurts its chances to renew or get another R01, because hey, the colleague is already funded at the R01 level (albeit less a year). With the modular limit on 4/5yr R01's already severely eroded in purchasing power and being routinely cut 10-20%, a rise in the number of 3yr R01's are already being touted by some PO's so they can give out more awards and pad their precious "success rate", but its still the same trough and more mouths to feed.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    There is a serious problem with this "mini-R01" idea if your are submitting under the Parent R01 FOA. Regardless of the size and duration of funding requested, it will be percentiled along with all the "regular" R01s reviewed by the study section. And this means that as the study section scores the R01s, any "mini-R01s" will affect the score distribution and score-spreading behavior exactly the same as "regular" R01s. And this is the reason why study sections can't just say, "Fuck it. It's hardly any money.", and more readily give great scores to "mini-R01s": because that discounts the great scores they want to give to" regular" R01s. The advantage of R21 and R03 applications is that they don't go into the percentiling list, and so great scores don't discount R01 scores. Properly run study sections account for all of this in their scoring behavior.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Maybe it *should* affect the percentile base for full R01.

  • jmz4 says:

    ^wouldnt that lead to increased churn and a new status quo of everyone submitting mini grants every two years or so?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Not necessarily. I'm not suggesting this as wholesale replacement for everything. Just as a supplement to fix what went wrong with R21.

    I do think there should be a bonus for full R01 that follow a successful interval of Exploratory/Developmental funding. Not totally sure how to make that work. I do note the R21/R33 mech taps into some of my ideas on this.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    It is an absolutely terrible idea to lump 4-5 year multi-hundreds of thousands of dollars grants with 2-3 years multi-tens of thousands of dollars grants.

  • qaz says:

    I think this is a terrible idea. I don't see any reason why the 3-year R01 wouldn't end up in the same problem that the 2-year R21 is in. In fact, I would argue that the 3-year R01 would have three very devastating effects.

    First, it would be easier for NIH to start funding 3-year R01s instead of 5 (some institutes are already moving in this direction), which could make them more fundable than 5 and lead to them becoming more standard (which would lead to grant churn - which we all agree [I hope] is a "bad thing").

    Second, they would be percentiled with 5-year R01s which would distort both percentile groups. As we've talked about before, study section should not be tasked with deciding on the diversity of investment. Program needs to decide how much to invest in high-risk stocks and how much to invest in stable bonds. Study section should be tasked with deciding which "high risk stocks" and which "stable bonds" to invest in. Every investor knows chasing the "best idea" is a recipe for disaster.

    Third, people would still demand preliminary data (see discussion on other thread) and it would still be compared to the larger R01s. Right now, when someone complains that an R21 doesn't have preliminary data, study section members can say "an R21 doesn't need preliminary data" (it's in the RFA). That would be much harder to do if it were relabeled as an R01.

    There's a MUCH simpler solution. Make the R21 renewable into an R01. That would be easy. And it would solve the problem completely.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I definitely like the idea of converting R21 to R01

  • Grumpy says:

    The problem with R21 is that it is too inflexible. If I want to go in on a collaborative grant with someone from a different discipline to work on a project that is in very early days, I have only one choice: we each ask for 70k/yr for two years. But if the project is really better suited to three years and 100k/yr each directs, we don't have any mechanism. There are no one-year extensions, no way to petition for more \(/yr (that I know of), etc

    AFAIK, NIH is the only funding agency where 4-5 yrs for the flagship grant is the norm. And at 250k directs it is at the very top of what other agencies will do for single PI grants. If it was reduced to 3 yrs with maybe a bit lower average \)/yr, it could accommodate a wider range of projects. And success rates would presumably go up (at least in the short term), so it's not clear how many more grant proposals we'd actually have to write.

    But of course that would *really* mean projects not people, and I'm not so sure that's what folks want.

  • qaz says:

    Grumpy - The grants from other funding agencies are designed to supplement not run labs. (For example, the NSF grant used to be restricted to providing summer salary only. [I believe this has changed, but the history is useful to understand.]) There are very few (if any) labs that can survive on NSF grants alone. NIH grants are designed to enable laboratories to run completely funded on NIH grants (i.e. soft-money and permanent technicians).

    By far the worst problem in the grant game is the instability and uncertainty. The idea that we have to fight for a new grant every three years is a nightmare scenario for NIH-based labs. (This is called grant churn and would entail spending *even more* time writing grants. Furthermore, it often takes 2-3 years for basic results to reach publication, which means that renewing a 3-year grant is particularly difficult.)

  • drugmonkey says:

    The grants from other funding agencies are designed to supplement not run labs. ... There are very few (if any) labs that can survive on NSF grants alone.

    So, you are saying this is a system designed for....?

  • Grumpy says:

    Qaz and others, regarding grant churn, are you thinking this all the way through?

    In a perfect market, as long as the total NIH dollars don't change, proposers spend the same amount of time writing proposals regardless of how they are chopped up. Now admittedly time spent writing proposals is a little more lumpy (for, e.g., administrative reasons), but its not *that* big of a perturbation. Certainly you wouldn't spend as much time writing an R21 as an R01, agreed?

    The grant churn "problem" (if such a problem actually exists) is related to drugmonkey's "too many months at the trough". If you chop awards up smaller, it shouldn't have a huge impact on grant churn, but the game will get less risky and fluctuations will be smaller.

  • Certainly you wouldn't spend as much time writing an R21 as an R01, agreed?

    Although an R01 application is about twice as long as an R21, it takes much less than twice the amount of time/effort to write an R01 than an R21.

    An R21 is awarded for a maximum of $275,000 total costs over two years. If we assume modular budget, an R01 is awarded for a maximum of $1,250,000 over five years.

    The amount of grant-writing effort per dollar yield to support the lab is *vastly* higher for R21s than R01s.

  • Grumpy says:

    Comradde,
    Why do you say it takes less than 2x as long to write an R01 with such confidence? I certainly spent more than 2x the time in my R01 vs R21 applications (though admittedly I am a noob).

    Given the success probabilities are comparable, simple arithmetic says time/$ should not vary so much. So if it does, as you claim, then either the proposers are systematically messing up or there are extreme barriers in place by the system.

    Which do you think it is?

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    Given the success probabilities are comparable, simple arithmetic says time/$ should not vary so much.

    You need to brush up on your arithmetic skills.

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