Lunatic Fringe?

Nov 10 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It will be no secret to my readers that I do work that is on the outer fringes of what NIH funds. I would consider NSF to be the main funding body I can submit to, but like any forward looking individual, I've moved in various directions that allow me some funding flexibility. Given that I am within a stone's throw of an NIH institute or two, I have lobbed a few forays their way in the form of an R15s (A0 and A1 revision) and an R01 (pending). Surprisingly, I got damn close to the funding line with that A1, despite the A0 being triaged. I also have no idea how the R01 will fair in a few months.

I sent in the R01 because, in repeated discussions around the bloggosphere (I'm too lazy at this hour to track down all the links from Drugmonkey et al.), the general consensus is not to waste your ESI/NI status* on a capped budget like an R15 or R21. Fair enough, why use your one time advantage on $300K total in direct funds over three years when you could be using it to pull in an R01 at $250K/year in direct for five years. Massive difference, right?

But here's where it's different being the square peg in a round hole world. Unlike a lot of people whose work is right in NIH's wheelhouse, I could spend a career chasing the pot `o gold at the end of the R01 rainbow only to realize that it is always just beyond my grasp. The average age of a new investigator R01 for people doing NIH science is around 42 (NIH ppt), which is almost a decade older than I am right now. So do I bang away at the R01 or assess my situation differently? Perhaps realistically.

R15 funding is along the lines of an NSF grant, though on the low side. But landing a couple of R15s to go with our NSF funding would be a Very Good Thing. Would an R01 be better? Of course, but if the odds are much longer**, why not shoot for the attainable now in order to establish myself before aiming for the big one? I need cash now, not in a decade, and the R15 funding rates are higher than the R01s. I can do a lot of damage even at $100K/year. Certainly more than I can do at $0K/year.

And so I go back and forth on this issue all the time on what strategy is going to work for me, at my institution with my resources, expectations and doing the NIH-fringe science I do. If I can "launch" with R15-sized funding in the next few years, do I focus on getting that or keep my hand in the R01 pond? Amazingly, me ceiling at 2:00 am doesn't have the answers.

*ESI = Early Stage Investigator, which gives you a bump in fundable score for ten years post PhD.

**Whether or not the R15s are judged with the expectations of an R01 is an area of debate and I get the impression this is study section dependent.

15 responses so far

  • LD says:

    It takes money to make money. The more science you get done now (i.e., sooner) the more you can get later. I say go for the R15.

  • drugmonkey says:

    AREA and R21 do NOT make you ineligible for ESI/NI

    http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-07-083.html

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh and I still think the alleged "general consensus" about "wasting your status" is misguided. If you have a shot at being PI on an award, take it. Way better to have that track record and a chance to accomplish some science in your own lab.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    DM, are you suggesting that there is NOT a general trend in advice for junior PIs to focus on R01s and not the smaller mechs? My impression has been the opposite, but I'll have to scare up some links when I get a few minutes.

    WRT the ESI status, is this a change as a result of losing the A2 or have I been confused all along?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Different issue. Yes, good idea to focus on securing R01 first. Not a good idea to fetishize "protecting ESI status".

    as far as i know, ESI status has always been dictated by R01 and a few R01-like mechanisms. always read the fine print, of course, no reason individual ICs might not have slightly different policies..with respect to their funding decisions, that is. Formal definition should be NIH wide I would think?

  • drugmonkey says:

    R15 is a unique case, too. My view is that if you are in an institution that is eligible, you HAVE to pursue this. Why would you not? Automatic limitation in the competition pool to those who are operating under institutional parameters similar to your own.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Automatic limitation in the competition pool to those who are operating under institutional parameters similar to your own.

    Sort of, but it's not like the R15s have their own study section. They are lumped in with the R01s and general R21s, right? My impression based on conversations with people who have been on study sections is that the R15s are not judged as a group. What is less clear to me is whether their priority score is based on just the R15s. It seems like it would have to be, but I haven't been there.

  • anon says:

    PLS - You've been confused all along. I was given advice as an ESI to focus on R01 - precisely at the time when declaring yourself as a "new investigator" was the kiss of death at the NIH. The reasons were almost always that I didn't have enough data or some such bullshit. This last round (I no longer have ESI status), I had an R21 that scored within the payline with first-time submission. I also have NSF funding; never was successful at getting an R01. If it fits the program, go for it.

  • Tex says:

    Just served on SS (Oct) - R15's were reviewed together and compared to one another, NI/ESI RO1's were reviewed together, the R21's were reviewed together and then the rest of the RO1's. This has not always been the case though.

  • Tex says:

    Also - can only have one R15 at a time - although they are renewable.

  • Dr. O says:

    I was going to point out that NI/ESI status doesn't get used up on R21/R15's, but I see DM beat me to the punch.

    Sort of, but it's not like the R15s have their own study section. They are lumped in with the R01s and general R21s, right? My impression based on conversations with people who have been on study sections is that the R15s are not judged as a group.

    I think how the R21 and R15 grants get reviewed varies quite a bit from one institute to the next, maybe a good question for your PO. What I have heard from a few colleagues who recently submitted both R21 and R01 grants is that their bar for preliminary data was much lower on the R01, possibly because they *have* to take NI/ESI status into account. That's anecdata, of course.

  • physioprof says:

    While I have taken the position that young investigators should never submit anything other than R01s, recent observations have led me to revise that advice a bit. If you are a young investigator with ample fiscal resources--such as start-up funds--then my prior advice stands. But if you are coming up against fiscal constraints, and don't have sufficient preliminary data to support an R01, then yes, an R21 can be appropriate.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I love it when PP admits that I was right all along.....

  • phagenista says:

    I'm in a similar position to prof-like substance, and I can say my department is thrilled that I snagged an R03 this year. It's possibly the first NIH funding for my not-NIH-oriented dept, and even the deans have taken notice. I wouldn't be surprised if people expect me to get an R01 sooner or later, but I feel like this is a foothold for me after years of solely NSF funding.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Or go find a center (proposal) that needs your thing. It need not be at your place, but this is a way to get started and provide preliminary data.

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