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Inside NIA: A Blog for Researchers

Why support R21 awards?

Why support R21 awards?

Posted on September 11, 2013 by Robin Barr, Director of the Division of Extramural Activities. See Robin Barr's full profile.

For the past few years, the NIA has been trying to increase the number of R21 grant applications and awards. The R21, of course, is an NIH-wide grant program “intended to encourage exploratory and developmental research projects by providing support for the early and conceptual stages…” See the current funding opportunity announcement.

You might wonder why we are so eager to support these awards. Well, it has to do with countering conservatism in the peer review of new science.

Isn’t the R01 the true standard of a researcher’s independence?

A widely held view is that receipt of an NIH R01 award is like admission to a club. That high-profile, independent funding confers respectability on research and researchers alike. It is the coin of the realm for tenure and promotion committees. Junior researchers aim for one. It allows funding for a major attack on a research area—and stability of employment to a research team!

Why award R21s then, with their comparatively brief term and limited funding?

Cartoon of four people in conversation. Their speech bubbles contain the text "R01" and "R21," implying a conversation about those topics.With only two years of support and limited funding, R21s do not carry the cachet of an R01. They usually don’t allow a researcher to move a field forward substantively. Ominously, analyses within NIH indicate that those who receive R21 awards are no more likely to get R01s than those without prior funding.

In these hard times, you might ask: Isn’t it time to cut frills like the R21 and sustain the core business? Pay more R01s!

But, not so fast! R21 awards fill an important gap.

The reason why the NIH created R21 awards was because the research community identified a problem with R01s. The informal but powerful demand for a tried-and-true methodology, a validated animal model, or a well-established neuropsychological test is understandable when reviewers are considering high-cost, long-term projects. Why should reviewers give enthusiastic ratings to a project that could flop because the animal model fails, the test lacks reliability, or weaknesses appear in the methodology?

Yet that sensible urge is a drive towards conservatism. How do we introduce new models, tests, and procedures when R01 reviewers evaluate them so harshly? As these new concepts advance a scientific field, biasing the odds against them seems foolhardy. But that is appropriate behavior in review of R01s.

R21 awards --> innovation.

It is in that spirit that the R21 award was created. It is a “stir-the-pot” award. It allows new tests, animal models, drug targets, or procedures to be reviewed and funded. R21 research validates concepts and brings them into the literature.

A word to the wise—the point is NOT to collect pilot data for your own future R01. Instead, you establish the evidence for a new concept (model, test, or procedure) that you may use in your research, as will others in their research.

Our evaluation: R21 research is published in journals with higher impact factors.

At the NIA, we evaluated our funded R21 awards two years ago. We found that the average impact factor for journals where R21s were listed as the source of support for a paper was higher than the average impact factor for publications citing other research grant types that we considered. That’s not surprising. If R21s are being innovative, as is intended, then they will have publications that appear in noticeable journals.

And so, we changed our ways to encourage R21 applications.

In fiscal year 2012, we stopped applying administrative budget cuts to R21s (and also to R03s). We meant to encourage these awards.

These days, we divvy up a budget that is not increasing. As success rates almost inevitably tumble, then the risk of conservatism surely increases. Reviewers and EVEN NIA staff(!) start to think: After all, we have little money to invest. Let’s be sure that what we recommend is likely to succeed.

R21s counter that conservatism. When budgets are shrinking it is more important than ever that we keep doors open to innovation and change. An award program that targets those features makes sense.


Read next:

What kinds of R21 applications does the NIA accept?

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Posted by Paolo on Sep 11, 2013 - 2:50 pm

All this is very nice theory. In practice, reviewers want to see strong preliminary data for R21 applications as they do for R01 applications - although in principle preliminary data are not required for R21's. There is still much conservativism among reviewers, and SRO's don't seem to be able to correct this attitude. A young colleague I supervised years ago had to do so many experiments to supplement his preliminary data that in the end he had to remove one of the two specific aims from the revised application that was funded. That is, he was requested to do half of the work he proposed before the reviewers were convinced...

Posted by Curious George on Sep 11, 2013 - 6:46 pm

Theoretically, it's a great idea. Practically, it does not work. The reviewers are demanding strong preliminary results. On my applications, I was told that my idea is too innovative, and I should have "strong preliminary" results to back it up. My senior colleagues are telling me not to waste my time with R21s, since they had similar issues. BTW, I have received very similar comments even for R03s. My favorite one was when a reviewer asked for preliminary results.

Posted by Dorry Segev on Sep 13, 2013 - 1:55 pm

Thank you for posting this blog entry and thank you for your support of the R21s. I am frustrated that other institutes have pulled away from the R21s, which I think are a critical part of the NIH pie, and an even more critical one in this funding environment. >>> Having had 3 R21s funded as a junior investigator, and having reviewed R21s on study section, I can attest to the fact that (in whatever experience I have had) these are different entities from the R01 and seen in a different light. The tendency towards only funding super-conservative, incremental work where the investigator has basically done half the project just to show feasibility/etc is much less with the R21s, and I think that's a wonderful thing. The application is only 6 pages, so there isn't even room for much preliminary data at all, which is also a good thing. >>> I'll give a couple personal examples, for what they're worth. >>> Sometimes a project just isn't big enough for an R01, and doesn't "fit" as an aim in an R01, but is exciting and novel and will move the field forward. One of my R21s was exactly this -- a project that we could do in 2 years, that didn't require "R01-level" resources. We were funded on the first submission and each aim resulted in at least one paper in the highest impact journal in our specialty. >>> Sometimes you need evidence that your entire line of thinking for an R01 is sound. You might find this evidence from less expensive epidemiologic studies. For example, a retrospective study might support the hypothesis underlying a proposed RCT or prospective study. So the R21 is not specifically to produce preliminary data (like feasibility for the RCT, etc) but is to defend a hypothesis that, until the R21 research is done, might not be considered "conservative" enough for the bigger, more expensive study to get done. Along these lines, one of my R21s (funded on the first submission) produced the epidemiologic framework that we then used to support an R01 (funded on resubmission). >>> Anyway, those are my thoughts. I've had several great experiences with this mechanism. Actually the only bad experience I ever had was getting a near-perfect score on an R21 submission and then being told that the institute was funding almost no R21s and was not really supporting that mechanism in the future! So do speak with NIH staff before submitting -- although from this blog entry at least we know how NIA feels!

Posted by A different experience on Sep 13, 2013 - 2:32 pm

I recently received an R21 to do what is essentially a feasibility study with some tangible deliverables that can be used by other researchers. There was no preliminary data in my application, but reviewers were enthusiastic about the data that would result from the proposed study. Maybe the need for preliminary data varies by study section, field, and topic. But now you know of at least one proposal funded with no preliminary data.