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Strategy for NIH Funding
Pick a Research Project · Choose Approach and Find FOAs
Pages of Part 2. Pick and Design a Project
Choosing a grant type can have major repercussions on your research and career.
We do not recommend that you make that choice on your own unless you are extremely knowledgeable about the subject. But we do give you information and advice to help you have an informed discussion with an NIH program officer.
This document gives you the scoop on factors to contemplate for these research grants: R01, R21, and R03.
If you are not sure how your research fits in at NIH, read Part 1. Qualify for NIH Funding before proceeding.
(This section has factual information only; for advice on this topic, go to Our Advice below.)
NIH supports hundreds of types of grants—known here as activity codes. The basic and most popular research project grant is the R01—read more at What's an R01? in our New Investigator Guide to NIH Funding and below under See if an R01 Is Right for You.
If you are highly knowledgeable about NIH activity codes, choose one at NIH's Types of Grant Programs or Activity Codes Search Results. If not, contact an NIH program officer for help, and read more in Our Advice below.
Our Advice discusses the potential benefits and drawbacks of the exploratory/developmental research grant (R21) and small grant (R03). For information about other awards, such as cooperative agreements and conference grants, go to our Other Grant Types portal.
(This section has advice only. For factual information, go to Just the Facts above.)
Though NIH supports hundreds of activity codes, choosing one is difficult because the repercussions of that choice on your research and career may not be apparent. Features such as award length and funding levels can dampen your chance of success in ways you may not anticipate, particularly if you are a new investigator.
Unless you are highly knowledgeable about activity codes, we strongly recommend that you not choose one on your own. Instead, get help from a program officer. Go to When to Contact an NIAID Program Officer.
To see what awards you may qualify for, first talk to staff in your business office to find out what grants your institution will allow you to apply for. Then, use the Strategy to Determine What Funding You Qualify For in Part 1 for NIH's perspective and read more below.
Call an NIAID program officer to discuss what activity code might be appropriate for you.
Obviously many factors come into play in choosing an activity code, and since people's situations differ, no one-size advice fits all.
Call an NIAID program officer to discuss what activity code might be appropriate for you. Ask about the money and time constraints of different activity codes and how these factors may affect your ability to conduct a sound research project that can produce timely results.
Also talk to experienced people in your institution for guidance.
When planning your application, factor in the level and duration of support you negotiated with your institution.
Then factor in the time it takes to get the NIH grant to determine if you will have enough institutional support while you're waiting for NIH funding.
To learn about application timing, go to Timing Factors That Affect Your Application and Award.
If you have preliminary data, we recommend an R01.
An R01 is a mature award that gives you four or five years of support, enough money (as well as time) to complete a project, publish results, and start writing your next application in time to get an award before the funding ends.
Even for new investigators, an R01 is usually the right choice—here's why.
One caveat for new investigators. Though reviewers focus less on track record than they would from an established PI, you still need to propose an important problem and use a sound research approach, a topic we cover in Design a Project in Part 2.
At NIAID, applications that score near the payline are candidates for R56-Bridge awards, which can act as a springboard to an R01 by giving you one year of funding so you can gather preliminary data to improve your application.
Almost 90 percent of R56-Bridge awards convert to a full R01. Note: we nominate programmatically important R01 applications for a Bridge award or selective pay; you cannot apply—read more in the NIAID R56-Bridge Award and Selective Pay SOPs.
To learn more about R01s, find resources on our R01 Investigator Resources portal.
If a small award will be your only funding, get more advice before going this route.
If you're not ready for an R01, you might think about considering a two-year exploratory/developmental research grant (R21) or small grant (R03), but first, be aware of the caveats.
These awards are primarily for established investigators who want to complete a limited project, for example, a pilot or feasibility study.
NIH did not design them to help you establish a research career.
Nor are these smaller awards easy to get: in FY 2015, NIAID's success rate for R03 applications was 25.2 percent and for R21s was 20.9 percent.
While they do help some investigators, there is no evidence they create a path to independent research.
For more details and advice, read Should You Apply for an R21?
Don't let the word "small" fool you into thinking that an R03 is "easy" to get. It's not.
Like any other grant, your application will have stiff competition, will undergo peer review, and must be suitable for the activity code.
Your project must be tightly focused, able to be completed in two years, and manageable on a maximum of $100,000 in direct costs over the two-year period. If your project doesn’t meet these criteria, it’s not likely to be well received by reviewers.Examples of projects that fit the R03 purpose include:
To see the types of projects that have been funded, go to NIH RePORTER and select R03 in the Activity Code field.
If you want to use numbers to gauge the ease or difficulty of getting an R03, consider these:
To learn about paylines, see Paylines Start to Finish and Understand Paylines and Percentiles in the Strategy for NIH Funding.
Also find additional success rate data at Research Project Success Rates for the Selected Institute (NIAID) and Research Project Success Rates by Type and Activity for 2015.
At first glance, the R03 seems well suited to a new investigator. You can request up to $50,000 a year in direct costs and do not need preliminary data. And for someone who's never written a grant application, the shorter six-page Research Strategy (versus 12 pages for an R01) might be appealing.
Given all this, you may be tempted to start "small," but you should think twice. The smaller page limit means you need a concise, tightly focused research plan. The short award and the limited budget mean you have little room for course correction. Finally, R03 awards are not renewable.
Additionally, we found that an R03 can actually hurt your chances of a future R01.
The most likely reason is that R03s usually do not give you enough money to complete a meaningful research project. So you may not get the data you need for a future R01 application or accomplish enough to convince reviewers you are credible as a PI of a major project.
Unless your project is perfectly suited for an R03, and if you have sufficient preliminary data, you're likely better off focusing on crafting and submitting a competitive application for an R01. It gives you four or five years of support and enough money (as well as time) to complete a project and publish results.
When applying for their first independent NIH research grant, new and early-stage investigators get some breaks, such as benefitting from a higher R01 payline. To learn more, read Are You "New”? in the New Investigator Guide to NIH Funding.
Our final piece of advice is key: contact one of the program officers listed in the Parent R03 funding opportunity announcement as you start to develop your application. He or she can advise you on whether your proposed project is appropriate for an R03.
R21s can give you funds to obtain preliminary data, but there is no evidence they create a path to independent research.
Exploratory/developmental grants fund investigators who seek to develop new ideas, models, tools, agents, or technologies, and they are also used to fund smaller projects than would be appropriate for an R01.
For our advice on the pros and cons, read Should You Apply for an R21?
No matter which grant you apply for, you need to consider where your support will come from should you have a funding gap while you apply for and wait to receive an R01. Read more in Approaches for Staying Funded in Part 7.
To find information about different activity codes, go to our Grants portal.
See the other sections ofPart 2. Pick and Design a Project
Table of Contents for the Strategy
We welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Updated May 05, 2016
Last Reviewed June 21, 2012