NIH Focus on Funding Smaller Research Programs

Last month, NIH announced some changes to its AREA (Academic Research Enhancement Award) Program, which is focused on funding small scale research projects at institutions with less intensive research programs. This is specifically targeted at investigators working in institutions with fewer than $6 million in annual research funding.

In past years, NIH has changed some of the criteria of the AREA grant programs to increase maximum funding from $150,000 to $300,000, and has doubled the research volume limitation for eligible institutions from $3 million to $6 million. This has caused a surge in the number of applications, with the last year having nearly three times the number of applications that were proposed several years ago. However, the number of funded proposals has held steady, causing the rate of success to plummet from around 40% to nearly 10%.

One way to increase the rate of success, thereby encouraging interest in the program, would be to increase funding for it; this concept has limited viability in today’s economic and political climate. Instead, NIH has decided to alter the manner in which it handles incoming proposals to ensure that the projects most representative of the goals of the AREA program are chosen to be funded. This will be accomplished by two changes. First, to increase the number of AREA-eligible investigators on the review panels, which will help ensure that the proposals are being reviewed by those familiar with the style of projects funded by AREA as opposed to standard R01s. Secondly, NIH will be clustering AREA proposals so that they can be reviewed and compared together instead of beside proposals for more traditional funding mechanisms.

These two procedural changes should help NIH identify the most promising AREA proposals that not only have sound science to back up the projects, but also strive to achieve the specific goals of the AREA program. The primary goal of the program, other than funding sound science, is to involve students in research activities, and more specifically, to introduce students to their first research project role. Since this is so markedly different than the more traditional funding mechanisms, it would seem appropriate to have a more tailored review method. Those that may have been frustrated with AREA proposals in the past, or had been previously ineligible, should be encouraged to take another look at them.

With that in mind, combined with the broadened eligibility criteria and increased maximum funding, AREA programs are worth another look. The most recent Parent R15 is PA-12-006 and it opens on January 25th, 2012. NIH is looking for applicants to recruit high school, undergraduate, and graduate students into the research projects. This is not intended to be a training program, AREA is still intended to be primarily focused on research funding, but with the additional component of student involvement.

NIH would like to see applicants that have had student supervision experience and are looking to bring the benefits of that experience into a research project. Also, the proposal should demonstrate how the project will improve the research environment of the investigator’s institution. Full details on the announcement can be viewed here.

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