The NIH-R15, Part 1: Who’s in the rink?

Curchem is featuring funding! In this two-part post, Dr. Joseph Provost describes the hockey rink/funding landscape that is NIH- R15 and then, shares from his first-hand experience on how to craft a competitive submission.

Grant writing is just like hockey?

Not Wayne Gretsky…but close

In an earlier post “Research Grants and Grantsmanship – the whole truth”, Roger Rowlett shared that there is never a good time to write a grant…and only the grants you submit can be funded.  Maybe it’s because I love hockey, but that reminds me of Wayne Gretzky,. He said “you miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” Writing a grant is something that just has to be done in order to get funded. The Great One also gave advice on how to be competitive, he said “you have to skate where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Creating a competitive proposal is the hard and exciting part of being a scholar.  Forecasting where science is going to be (both in hypothesis and innovative technique) is an exciting opportunity.  Writing for NIH R15 funding is no different.  Together, with my long-time collaborator Mark Wallert, I have just submitted an R15 to the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, and if funded, it will be my fourth R15 award .  Mea Culpa – this is not the first submission for this project.   Not even the second!  I did have one funded on the first submission…


Goals of the NIH R15 Program:  Support meritorious research, expose students to research and strengthen the research environment of the institution. 

The purpose of the Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program is to stimulate research in educational institutions that provide baccalaureate or advanced degrees for a significant number of the Nation’s research scientists, but that have not been major recipients of NIH support. AREA grants create opportunities for scientists and institutions otherwise unlikely to participate extensively in NIH research programs to contribute to the Nation’s biomedical and behavioral research effort. AREA grants are intended to support small-scale research projects proposed by faculty members of eligible, domestic institutions, to expose undergraduate and/or graduate students to meritorious research projects, and to strengthen the research environment of the applicant institution.

Get some perspective on the AREA

qbnxcknaThe R15 Academic Research Enhancement (AREA) Program was started in the mid 1980s to fund smaller, less research-intensive universities and colleges.  CUR, especially some of the Chemistry Division Councilors, played an important role lobbying the NIH to create this funding mechanism.  I remember hearing in the mid 90’s that there were not enough good R15 AREA proposals being submitted, and a quality proposal from a small school was ripe for the picking. I am not sure if that was ever a reality, but one thing is for certain, it is no longer the case.  Funding rates for all NIH programs are down.  The overall success rate (total awards/total submissions reviewed) for NIH in 2015 was 18.3% and the R15 success rate for that same time was  slightly less at 16.9%.

A close look demonstrates that PUI faculty are facing a tough battle to be funded.

A close look demonstrates that PUI faculty are facing a tough battle to be funded.  In 2016 there were a total of 302 active R15 grants (current and funded) which is exciting.  Funding varied pretty significantly based on the institute.  Pulling data from NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT), a breakdown of funding for some of the NIH Institutes looks like this…

                                      R15 Success Rate              Overall Institute

Institute                   % (grants funded)               Success Rate                

NCI                                         8.3% (18)                             13 %

NIGMS                                 34.3% (111)                         29.6%

NHLBI                                    17.7% (22)                           21.9%

NINDS                                   15% (15)                               20.5%

NIDDK                                   11% (31)                               20.3%

Know Your Competition

nhe120picAn even closer examination of the data shows that PUIs are in the deep end of the R15 pool competing against some surprisingly big schools.  For example, one of the funded departments boasts of 50-80 graduate students in their program – yes, you read that correctly.  A handful of examples of schools funded by the R15 mechanism include: Iowa State, Kansas State, University of TN Knoxville, Clemson, University of Missouri St. Louis, Des Moines Osteopathic Medicine, Univ North Texas Health Science Center, Medical University of South Carolina, Michigan Tech, North Dakota State Univ Pharmacy School, and Auburn.  Performing a quick review of 100 of the active 2016 award winners reveals 30% of the awardees as PUI or less research-intensive schools, for example:  Juniata, Univ Wisconsin Lacrosse, Haverford, Macalester, Grand Valley State, Spelman, College of New Jersey, Harvey Mudd, and Univ of Puerto Rico at Humacacao among others.

Creating a competitive proposal is the hard and exciting part of being a scholar.

In my opinion, pressures on the R01 pool of  investigators have pushed some schools to seek other sources of funding.  It is perhaps surprising to find that the R15 description contains this sentence: “The research project must involve undergraduate (preferably, if available) and/or graduate students in the proposed research.”  This current description means the bigger schools listed above are playing fair as long as “The institution may not receive more than $6 million per year in NIH support in each of 4 of the last 7 years”.

PUIs are playing in the big leagues. Reviewers are going to see your R15 proposal alongside another proposal where the PI might come from a division that earns 9.5 million in extramural funding each year for their institution (true story). Now, before you get discouraged – remember, it IS possible to be awarded an R15 as a PUI…but it is important to know who you’re competing against.

Writing a Competitive Proposal

What does it take to be successful getting NIH R15 funding as a PUI with the current competition?  I will let you know in a couple of months when I get my score from this week’s submission!  In truth, you are striking a balance between being innovative, without being “too ambitious.” If we go back to hockey…(did we ever really leave?) You need strong, well-defined aims, but you can’t be too far ahead of the puck .  Finding the balance between an incremental and an ambitious proposal is critical, and then…you have to sell it to the reviewers.

Come back next week for a detailed look at the parts of an NIH R15 and how to write a competitive proposal.

639~Dr. Joseph Provost is a Professor and Associate Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of San Diego where he teaches a wide range of chemistry and biochemistry courses. Provost has been involved with a number of organizations involved to enrich the experience of undergraduates including: the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Council on Undergraduate Research and Project Kaleidoscope.  Provost ‘s research involves focuses the role transport protein plays in directed cell motility and tumor progression and how these membrane proteins regulate other critical mammalian cell functions.

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