Toward the end of my postdoc(s) at BFDU, pre-tenure faculty who were sitting on NIH study sections would all tell me the same thing; “Dude, if you end up at a small school, you HAVE TO apply for an R15! There are only a dozen submitted ever year, and the success rate is insane!” Keep in mind this was 2004, the NIH’s budget had been doubled in the last 5 years, and money flowed through the halls of BFDU like chocolate through Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Room. What the junior faculty saw was a nice pot of money sitting there that they were ineligible to apply for. Thus began my incorrect assumption about who R15’s go to. A pot of money at the NIH dedicated to helping small schools do research with undergraduates? Awesome!

Reality check. From the Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) Program (R15) page:

The AREA program supports small-scale research projects in the biomedical and behavioral sciences conducted by faculty and students at educational institutions that have not been major recipients of NIH research grant funds.

The goals of the program are:

  • Support meritorious research
  • Expose students to research
  • Strengthen the research environment of the institution

This is sufficiently vague to be read a number of ways. Of course the research should be meritorious, sending students on goose chases serves no one, least of all the NIH. But what does “expose students to research” mean? Digging into the Program Announcement, we get another interesting description:

create a research opportunity for scientists and institutions otherwise unlikely to participate extensively in NIH programs that support the Nation’s biomedical and behavioral research effort

Starts out great (institutions unlikely to participate), gets murky quick (support the Nation’s research effort). Does training future scientist count as “supporting the Nation’s research effort?” No, actually.

The application should include plans to involve undergraduate or graduate students in the proposed research. However, the AREA program is a research grant program, not a training or fellowship program. The application should include plans to expose students to hands-on research and should not include training plans.

As I mentioned previously, I’ve essentially given up on the NIH as a source of funding for my projects. This is one of the reasons. I don’t do groundbreaking research. I do produce some undergraduate students that have some pretty kick ass lab skills, though. As the R15 is written, I am not competitive. So where did this impression of easy money come from? Has something about the program changed? Digging back into RePORTER and collated data, it turns out the answer is “kind of.”

I downloaded all the data the NIH had on the R15 going back twenty years. I then did a simple search for “COLLEGE”, “UNIVERSITY” or “MEDICAL” in the Organization ID, and plotted the results. I also tallied the number of submissions over the last ten years. Yes, there are small universities, but it’s the best I could do with the data at hand. Click to embiggen.


So a few things are obvious right away. Universities have always been the major recipients of R15 awards. The trend seems to be swinging in universities favor, we’ll need to see if the number of colleges awarded in the next few years stabilizes or continues downward. Of course, “small” is in the eye of the beholder. However, look at the number of R15 grants submitted in the last 10 years. From ~500 in 2004 to ~1500 2014. There are probably a number of reasons for this. I can’t find when (or if) the $6M cap was raised, but I assume there are many more schools now who fall under that magic number. Furthermore, as funding gets tighter, more schools are going to lose more grants, which will take them off the ineligible list.

A consequence of all these new applications means that the success rate for the R15 has fallen from 29% in 2004 to 12% in 2013. This is, of course, no different than the dismal state of affairs for everyone applying for an R01 or similar. No one should expect special treatment in this funding climate, but if the goal of the R15 is to

support […] institutions that have not been major recipients of NIH research grant funds

I don’t see how you accomplish this with a 12% funding rate.

Whither R15?

5 thoughts on “Whither R15?

  • February 25, 2014 at 7:55 PM

    Sigh… It does seem paradoxical that a grant designed to get around the elitism of the NIH grant process has become so competitive. Part of the problem is not with the mechanism itself necessarily, but with the fact that it has suffered along with all other NIH funding mechanisms. There has been no special attempt on the part of the NIH to support a higher funding rate. Is the “bang for the buck” of the R15s larger than other mechanisms? I wonder what metrics could be applied to the recipients of these grants to see what effects they’ve had over time?

    • February 28, 2014 at 12:46 PM

      Part of the core problem is the NIH’s mission, as I point out in today’s post. They want to cure disease through research. Giving money to weaker, smaller schools is a very inefficient way to do that. If they embraced training outside of the institutional training grant programs (which again only large schools can compete for), that could change.

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  • June 21, 2016 at 12:39 PM

    Stumbled across this old post after doing some Reportering and Googling myself. I had a stimulating conversation with my PO recently that was both illuminating and intensely discouraging in the sense that it indicated competition for this mechanism was even tougher for the institutions it was arguably meant for than ever, and not likely to change. A look at the recipients of these awards, particularly from the NCI (which has something like an 8% success rate at the mo, I believe) reveals a fair number of decently sized institutions and med schools. Investigating the awardees reveals labs with a fair number of PhD students, and maybe a technician or a postdoc.It’s also apparent that the faculty members probably have a very light teaching responsibility. If it isn’t a medschool itself, it’s likely close and in active collaboration with one, with access to animal facilities and so forth. Of course, there are some smaller more teaching oriented outfits getting funded here and there, but the trend is clearly against them.

    So yeah, I suspect “institutions that have not been major recipients of NIH research grant funds” has evolved to become “institutions that were possibly major recipients of NIH research grant funds in the past but not right now”.

    And I’m actually fine with that, considering the dire R01 situation, although I wish I’d been aware of it sooner, and I hope I can make it clear to my institution that this mech isn’t nearly the low hanging fruit many folk still take it for.


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