Repost: The NIH R15 / AREA Mechanism

May 14, 2010

The R15 / AREA is one of my favorite NIH grant mechanisms, even though I’ve never been in a place that is eligible to apply for them. The whole idea is just so….positive and uplifting. In theory, these R15 awards are all about getting undergraduates involved in research science. From the professor’s perspective, this mechanism gives a chance at a set-aside pool of money for those investigators who operate under heavier teaching loads or with lesser institutional infrastructure. I was just discussing this mechanism with someone and decided it was worth revisiting this topic to see if anyone in the commentariat had any additional advice or insight to landing an R15 / AREA award (PA-10-070). This post originally appeared December 4, 2008.

The Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA / R15) mechanism of the NIH is designed to:

support small research projects in the biomedical and behavioral sciences conducted by faculty and students in health professional schools, and other academic components that have not been major recipients of NIH research grant funds

Selectivity of eligibility is always a good thing for those that happen to qualify. Knowledge of such opportunities is a very good thing for those on the job market for a variety of reasons including your own comfort in moving to a less research-focused department/institute and your ability to wow the hiring department with your awareness. So the first thing to do is to check the list of eligible schools/components carefully. It can be the case that the University School of Medicine is ineligible whereas the normal undergraduate departments in the School of Arts and Sciences or whatever are eligible. Or, surprisingly perhaps to some, vice versa. In case you were wondering, the Program Announcement indicates that the criteria exclude academic components

that have received research grants and/or cooperative agreements from the NIH totaling more than $3 million per year (in both direct and indirect costs) in each of four (4) or more of the last seven (7) years.

Prof in Training is apparently in one of the split-eligibility situations and recently asked her readers for input on the topic:

So dear reader, if you’ve been on a study section for R15s or have been awarded one (or hell, even applied for one), I’d like to hear your thoughts, suggestions and comments, be they good, bad, snarky or otherwise.

The comments seem to be slowing down over there so I thought I’d try to scare up some new input. If you have knowledge of the R15, go over there and comment, eh?
I thought I’d do a little bit more on the mechanism itself. Back to the NIH site on the AREA mechanism (current PA-06-042):

The three goals of the AREA program are:
* to support meritorious research,
* to strengthen the research environment of the institution, and
* to expose students to research.
Students will benefit from participating in meritorious research and will be encouraged to continue studies in the biomedical sciences. The AREA or R15 grant is a research award and not a training award, so the focus is not on course work but on hands-on meritorious research.

AREA applications are evaluated using the standard NIH review criteria for unsolicited research grants. Reviewers will assess the AREA-specific programmatic features of an application under the Investigator and Environment criteria.

Neither fish nor fowl…. think it gives the NIH review panels fits? You betcha! Let’s unpack the criteria.
Expose students: The Program Announcement underlines the intent:

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.


The AREA program is a research grant program and not a training or fellowship program. Active involvement of undergraduate and graduate students in the proposed research is encouraged, and reviewers will consider whether the proposed project will expose undergraduate (preferably, if available) and graduate students to meritorious research. However, the application should not focus on training objectives and training plans should not be provided.

I find this to be a big focus of the review of the R15 proposals. It is a very big deal to see direct evidence of undergraduate involvement. Provision of the number of cumulative undergraduates participating in the PI’s lab studies over the years. Evidence on the PI biosketch of paper authorship for undergrads (indicated by bolding author names, please), participation in local, undergraduate or even national research conferences. A description of the number of prior trainees who are in graduate or professional programs, post docs or even faculty positions. Obviously, the brand new assistant professor is not going to have such direct evidence. I would suggest mentioning any prior experiences training and working with undergraduates as a grad student or postdoc. Also, since the focus should in some senses be on the academic department (remember, awards are to institutions and not individual PIs!), the new (and not so new) investigator should provide an overview of the entire department’s success with undergraduate research exposure and subsequent graduate training.
There is one interesting (meaning “tricky”) bit to this part of the evaluation. I find that the evidence of a strong tradition of routing undergraduates to graduate study (say your more elite liberal arts teaching-focus colleges) conflicts in people’s minds with the aspects of the program that talk about building new research capacity and reaching markets under served by the NIH apparatus. So a hint of “Why do they need any extra money? They are already doing fantastic on these goals” sneaks in now and again during review. A related point is that the under served part is frequently viewed as meaning give extra bonus points to applications from universities or colleges that serve an undergraduate population that is underrepresented in the sciences. I have routinely seen applications which describe the ethnic breakdown of their undergraduates, pointedly noting how it is more diverse than national college/university average. This plays well with study section members. I myself have been under the impression that this was an explicit criterion. I can’t find it in the current PA. I wonder if such criteria were in past versions or if more specifically targeted PAs/RFAs which used the general R15 mechanism have been issued in the past or present? Perhaps this caused the section I serve to think this was an explicit part of all R15 considerations? At any rate, if your undergraduate population has underrepresented features, by all means put something in there about it…
Strengthen research environment:The Program Announcement says:

These AREA grants create opportunities for scientists and institutions otherwise unlikely to participate extensively in NIH programs

and there is more about strengthening the research capability. This part sounds like great stuff for those on the job market. The smaller, less research intensive, teaching focused department can be very attractive for many reasons ranging from personal interests to chance of successful competition for the offer. Those who are applying may be dissuaded by the fact that the department has a lower level of research activity, is renewing an aging faculty that has been puttering in slow-motion for decades or has never had a research tradition at all. Well, the idea that R15 money may be relatively easier to obtain (versus R01 or R21 awards) and can be intentionally described for the purpose of starting a lab / program (not so wise to try this in a R01 or R21) may make that department that more attractive.
I don’t know how this factor comes across in review. My recollection fails to identify any discussions that really focused on this factor of an R15 application. So I have nothing direct on this. I do worry that if it came down to this factor, the argument would inevitably start to recruit thoughts that we talk about all the time around here vis a vis soft-money. I.e., why is the NIH interested in building more lab capacity and more research programs if the local institution isn’t ponying up for the basics? Of course the answer is, the NIH created this mechanism for this purpose so reviewers should just shut up and evaluate the local merits, not the programmatic merits…but you know how that goes. Nevertheless this is one of the three explicitly described criteria. So if you have an argument on this line of attack you just have to make it as best you can.
Meritorious research: Trouble right off the bat. This right here encourages the reviewer to treat this like an R01 or R21 review. Now, they have to have this component in here because this is indeed a research award. They intend that the PI will be conducting research that is publishable and a contribution to science. This award is not to support demonstration laboratories. This consideration will also be important if the PI ever has to defend him/herself in another context (such as a subsequent job search) on the “meaning” of an R15 award in the past. Still, it poses real problems when trying to decide on the balance of factors in the construction and review of the application. Do you propose hawt kewl science to which an undergrad can contribute but only as a minor player? Or do you propose relatively pedestrian, chunk it out research to which an undergrad can run a complete experiment in a semester or put in a nearly grad-student quality first author type effort over the course of a year or two? How will those mysterious reviewers decide which of the three criteria to emphasize or how to fit them together into a whole? Your collaboration with the R15 ineligible SuperzPIz at the attached School of Medicine massively upgrades the merit of the research…but does it undercut the need to “strengthen the research environment”?
Obviously, you can’t overthink this stuff to the point of paralysis. Ultimately you are going to have to construct what you think is your best argument given your circumstances. Then, listen to the reviewers and revise the next version based on the hints you are receiving.

One thing I should point out is that the standard (non HIV/AIDS) receipt dates are Feb 25, Jun 25 and Oct 25. This gives you an additional 20 days after the R01 deadline and 10 days after the R21/R03 deadline. So if you are eligible and need to put in multiple proposals per round, this is a nice little option.

3 Responses to “Repost: The NIH R15 / AREA Mechanism

  1. JAT Says:

    I had a R15 once way way way back when my place was eligible for this mechanism (but no more…sadly to say in some ways..). They can be good bridging opportunities in case your RO1 renewal needs an additional round of review. They are in a way like R21 and RO3. The review criteria actually are pretty much the same as for any other mechanisms, i.e., have preliminary data (even though they are supposedly not needed) and have strong research track record. Just to possess great idea and prior experience working with undergraduate students are not good enough for you to land one. Competition can be quite fierce at times as they are viewed as just another grant but shorter. The only advantage this mechanism provide for the $ seekers is “institutional (i.e., college unit) eligibility”, nothing else. Also, these grants do not get percentile scoring. Back then, you need to get a maximum of 2 (out of 5 scale) to be considered for funding. Not sure what it is now on a 9 point scale (it would be safe to just use whatever is needed for R21 to get funded for this one)


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    Well, that’s the thing. Relative emphasis no doubt varies across study sections and across time.
    As I said in the OP, IMlimitedE, the emphasis was on the degree to which undergrads were integrated. This may be because most of the apps I have seen so far were from PIs who had good research going on, well within the scope of what we would usually see. I.e., we deal with plenty of applications from places with heavy teaching loads and/or lesser infrastructure, R15 eligible or not.


  3. lmf3b Says:

    I’m from a SLAC with no grad program in my field. the most nerve-wracking aspect for me is that some reviewers seem to forget what an R15 is for. My last review I got dinged by one for “not having access to graduate students” when my school was called an “ideal setting for an R15.”


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