Kill the R21!!!!

July 9, 2011

The NIH’s R21 grant mechanism is called Exploratory/Developmental. It is limited* to $275K in direct costs, to be split across 2 years however the PI sees fit. It cannot be competitively renewed.

Sally Rockey, head of Extramural research at the NIH, has just Twitted, and then blogged, advice that applicants not try for the R21 because success rates are higher for R01s.

Ding, dong the R21 is dead.

This seems like a very bad move on the part of the NIH. But clearly, with a statement like this coming from the top applicants should pay heed. And stop writing R21s.

No biggie, right? The R01s are superior because the project can be proposed for 5 years, and competitively renewed after that. More importantly, there doesn’t seem to be any easier review of R21 vs R01s. These “Exploratory” and/or “Developmental” proposals are being sent back for revision and beat up for lack of preliminary data. Scores are being (to appearances) benchmarked against R01 applications.

And almost unbelievably, Program appears to be passing these over when using their discretion about funding priority and portfolio balance.

In theory, peer review should love these things. They are low risk! And we know the demand for ever increasing amounts of preliminary data for R01 applications is mostly about scientific “risk” and “feasibility”.

Program should likewise be pleased to take a low cost look at an idea before jumping in with 5 years of funding.

At about half the cost, the NIH could boost it’s R-grant funding stats by picking up 2 R21s for the price if one R01.

I have no idea what the NIH is thinking on this, but they have this 180 degrees wrong. They should be encouraging the funding of even more R21s.

In fact, I think there should be a boost given to the funding of any new R01 proposals that follow from a reasonably successful R21 award. (Where successful need not only mean papers but include the generation of solid preliminary data, models, systems, etc.) Among other benefits this would reduce the current reality that PIs generate substantial preliminary data for their next proposal(s) on the dime of their current projects**.

For this to work, the NIH would have to get real about making study sections review the R21 properly…but they should do that anyway. Rockey’s position should not be to pass along the bad news but to FIX THE PROBLEM, imnsho. If they made these unrevisable and banned preliminary data, that would work wonders.

Can anyone point to any decent reasons why the NIH would rather get rid of the R21?
*currently. Previously it was limited to $100K per year for up to 3 years. There may be the occasional use via RFA that has these older parameters.

*technically illegal, btw.