Mistakes in AREA grants (R15)

Jan 23 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm reviewing grants again, and find it a wealth of mistakes that would be easy not to make. One is from an R15 or AREA proposal that didn't include students in a major way. So, what started as a small snarky post because a longer one on how to do it.

Here is from the program announcement for R15. The overall purpose of these awards (my emphasis):

The purpose of the Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program is to stimulate research in educational institutions that provide baccalaureate or advanced degrees for a significant number of the Nation's research scientists, but that have not been major recipients of NIH support.

NIH has been pretty strict about the "not been major recipients" criterion:

AREA grants create opportunities for scientists and institutions otherwise unlikely to participate extensively in NIH research programs to contribute to the Nation's biomedical and behavioral research effort.

You don't get to chose if your institution qualifies. NIH has a total funding amount that they use to decide. If unsure, talk to your program officer (not your institutional official). NIH decides if you qualify to apply or not. It's a threshold of total institutional funding:

The applicant organization may not receive research support from the NIH totaling more than $6 million per year (in both direct and F&A/indirect costs) in each of 4 of the last 7 years.

The purpose is parsed into three succinct goals of the program (my highlights & numbering):

AREA grants are intended to (1) support small-scale research projects proposed by faculty members of eligible, domestic institutions, to (2) expose undergraduate and/or graduate students to meritorious research projects, and to (3)strengthen the research environment of the applicant institution.

Let's look at these, with the wording from the PA.  Note the must below means that this is required, but not necessarily sufficient to get funded:

The research project must involve undergraduate (preferably, if available) and/or graduate students in the proposed research.

The announcement goes on to define what student participation means:

Students’ involvement in research may include participation in the design of experiments and controls, collection and analysis of data, execution and troubleshooting of experiments, presentation at meetings, drafting journal articles, collaborative interactions, participation in lab meetings to discuss results and future experiments, etc.


The application should focus on plans to expose students to hands-on meritorious research and the role of students in conducting hand-on meritorious research.

Also, keep in mind the following nuance.

The AREA program is a research grant program, not a training or fellowship program. As such, applications should not include training plans such as didactic training plans or non-research activities relating to professional development.

What this means is that an R15 is a grant to do research, not a grant to train students. But students must be involved. Additional caveat (my emphasis):

An AREA application may include other investigators, such as collaborators or consultants, or other trainees such as high school students, post baccalaureate participants, postdoctoral fellows, or clinical fellows. However, involvement of such individuals does not fulfill the goal to expose undergraduate and/or graduate students in eligible environments to research.

What does: support small-scale research projects proposed by faculty members mean? In a practical sense, small-scale means limited time & budget (3 years, $300K total). If you are doing a project, 100K/yr does not leave lots of room for faculty salary, but perhaps summer salary.

It is anticipated that investigators supported under the AREA program will benefit from the opportunity to conduct independent research;

Who is this? It could be people with large teaching loads during year who do not have research time written into their contracts or workloads. I have a colleague who teaches in an undergraduate allied health sciences (OT, PT, SLP, etc). His load is tough (2 courses/term, with labs in each, probably on the order of 20-30 contact hours a term). But even getting a small grant is such a Big Deal in his college that they will lighten his teaching load, and give him a term off every other year. Small medical schools that are primarily teaching schools, or stand-alone from large universities often do not have research written into contracts.

As an aside: this is not a place for big fish to get easy money. Here are the rules on other funding:

  • The PI must have a primary appointment at an AREA-eligible institution.
  • The PI may not be the PI of an active NIH research grant at the time of an AREA award.
    • Instrumentation awards (S10), conference grants (R13), and institutional training grants (T32) are examples of grants that are not considered research grants.
  • The PI may not be awarded more than one AREA grant at a time.
  • Eligibility applies only to the PI and Multiple PIs, not to collaborators, consultants, or sub awardees.

Best of all this note:

Prohibiting awards to already NIH funded PIs is central to the AREA program goals.

There is even less about how ones shows that this work will strengthen the research environment of the applicant institution. This is from the PA, and is pretty much a longer reiteration of the phrase above:

that the grantee institution will benefit from a research environment strengthened through AREA grants and by participation in the diverse extramural programs of the NIH;

Ways I can think of to show this include having other people at your institution involved in the work. Showing future directions (R15s are explicitly renewable) and a history of student co-authored publications would be two other ways. The people I know who have received an R15 and the ones I've reviewed are all doing top level research. Although R15s get reviewed separately (in one bunch) at study section, or in some IC's they have a special dedicated SS, the number of applications, the funding available means that competition is still pretty stiff for these awards.

Finally here is the FAQ for R15s.

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