Well, well, well. Hard on the heels of my interpretation of OER head Sally Rockey’s comment about R21s having lower success rates as “Kill the R21“, what should appear but a note from NHLBI (thanks to PiT for making me aware).

The R21 grant mechanism is intended to encourage exploratory and developmental research by providing two years of support for the early and conceptual stages of research project development. The NIH has standardized the Exploratory/Developmental Grant (R21) application characteristics, requirements, preparation, and review procedures in order to accommodate investigator-initiated (unsolicited) grant applications.

The R21 grant is meant to facilitate the award of larger regular research project grant (R01) applications by providing investigators with limited funds and time to pursue initial studies to obtain preliminary data for larger, more fully developed research projects. However, the NHLBI has determined that this grant mechanism is not having the effect or the impact on its research grant portfolio in the manner for which it was originally intended.

Consequently, the NHLBI will no longer accept investigator-initiated R21 applications in response to the NIH’s Parent Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), NIH Exploratory Developmental Research Grant Program (Parent R21). Investigator-initiated R21 applications will not be accepted for review and funding beyond Fiscal Year 2012. Therefore, the last receipt dates for NHLBI investigator-initiated R21 grant applications are October 16, 2011 for new applications and November 16, 2011 for resubmission (amended) applications.

No additional word as to why they think it is not having the intended effect.

Nor, of course, what they might have considered as alternative strategies to get the allegedly intended effect. ’cause you see where I’m going here, right?

If you have a desired goal, and the thing you thought would accomplish that goal isn’t getting the job done, you might want to fix or replace it. Otherwise someone might conclude you aren’t really interested in the goal in the first place. Or that you are perhaps no longer interested in a goal that you previously had established.

As you know, Dear Reader, I am of the opinion that there is nothing structurally wrong with the idea of the R21, in fact I think it is a great idea. The problem is that study sections are not, and perhaps never were, able to get their collective heads into the game.

This is not entirely the fault of study section members. If there was one single meta-review issue (having to do with the process of review rather than the actual review of proposals) that ate up the most time in my collective experiences on sections to date it is the intent of the R21 mechanism. Reviewers are capable of altering their behavior and many, if not most, are trying hard to do the job they think they have been set. The trouble is, the NIH is very loathe to address certain (not all, which is what makes it odd) issues. Such as what in the hell the R21 is for. Exploratory? Developmental? High risk/High reward? JuniorMint Starter Grant? Are they serious about the no-preliminary-data thing? how can they be when the “best” grants all have supporting evidence…? Etc.

It is my belief that the NIH should have stepped in a long time ago and fixed the review of R21s. Perhaps by putting them in their own sections. Perhaps by eliminating Preliminary Data. Perhaps by a series of reviewer instructions. Or, maybe, by prioritizing any R01 that arose from a successful R21 interval? Or maybe, just maybe, merely by pointing out all along the way how R21 scores were shaking out, telling study sections they weren’t (obviously) doing the intended job of treating it like a different mechanism from the R01 and urging them to do better. It is also my prediction that the NIH could fix a lot of the bad study section behavior just by shining a bright light upon it.

Throwing up their hands and closing out the mechanism is no solution.

Nor is it a solution, I would venture, to replace the R21 with some other mechanism without fixing the root problems. Take note of the long failed history of the R29/FIRST, NI checkbox, ESI focus, etc attempts to help out the junior investigators. It has quite obviously been an issue with the NIH since at least the 80s, going by their attempts at structural fixes. None of that kept study sections from beating up the junior faculty to an unfair degree. Why didn’t they try to fix the behavior of study sections first?

It’s funny. I was just being regaled by a Program type in a somewhat different context about how great the ARRA experience was. Two years, up and out! Try it out and cut it off if it isn’t working! Let’s not jump into these 5 year plans that slog along fruitlessly in the second half. I’m paraphrasing but this was the essence. This kind of thinking should shift Program my way….towards favoring even more R21 awards.

Not towards killing the mechanism off.

RIP, R21, RIP.