Mistakes in AREA grants (R15)

(by potnia theron) Jan 23 2018

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.

2 responses so far

Dolores O’Riordan died today

(by potnia theron) Jan 15 2018

One response so far

Grants Accounting *never* gets any love. from anyone. especially me.

(by potnia theron) Jan 03 2018

I hate those bean counters. I need to purchase a piece of equipment, consistent with other equipment already in the lab. Need in these sense, the equip we have does not work with one set of experiments. Need in the sense, if we are going to make a major part of aim 2, we need this stuff.

I got a quote from company (thank you company) that provided original (wonderful) equipment. I wrote the justification to grants accounting in October. OCTOBER. In Oct, grants accounting said "you need NIH permission to move money". I said: no, I don't. I found chapter and verse why I didn't (in short, it is less than $25K, it doesn't change the scope of the work). Grants accounting, in NOVEMBER said "sure, fine". Quote expired. Got new quote. Put it in. Need this for experiments that start mid -Jan. TODAY. To-fucking-Day, Grants accounting said "nope, we were wrong, you do need permission, from NIH and a statement from the company that no one else makes this". Why ? Because there is no "equipment" line in my budget. So to add the fucking budget line needs approval.

And the company, the very small, yet very good company, is off at a meeting.  No one to write my statement. NIH is, well, NIH. I am not sure when they will get back to me.

Take home lessons: Know the rules. Know the NIH rules that pertain to you. And know where to find chapter and verse when you need it. Do not believe grants accounting. I know I am smarter than them, and that I've been doing grants longer than them. Also: I did not put equipment in this proposal, because I didn't think I needed any. Now, I learn that one always wants to put an equipment budget line in, so that you can use it later.  There are other problems with that. But right now, I've got too many fires to put out to detail it for you. But I will.


4 responses so far

More thoughts on getting funded - Nature article

(by potnia theron) Dec 29 2017

Ok, Ok, I am letting go of what pissed me off from this article.

Here is another thing about which I have written before.

Talk to the Program Officer: Programme officers, also called programme directors, are NIH employees who shepherd grant applications through the system, from submission to award. Their role includes advising investigators by e-mail and on the phone — but not every scientist takes full advantage of this opportunity.

When I wrote about this in the past, or when DM wrote about this or datahound wrote about this (here and here and here and lots of other places, too), we got comments back that said: well, yes, but they never answered my phone call or email.

So firstly, the ways to do this. No one likes cold calls, ie, out of the blue from people they don't know. PO's are no exception. They usually have an admin person screening for them. A better strategy (and I have asked PO's about this) is to send an email. Yes, you are the generation that doesn't do email. But the PO is. Send a polite email. Use an appropriate subject line that includes the 5 word version of your proposal. "Discuss potential proposal on Bunny Hopping". Keep the email short:

I would like to discuss a proposal I am developing on Bunny Hopping. [insert one sentence summary of the proposal here]. I believe that it might fall within your portfolio. Is there a good time when we could discuss this on the phone?

If you have an abstract or SA developed, or even a para summary, you can attach it or paste it below. But if you make the PO wade through the whole summary before getting to "can we talk?", they may never make it there.

This of course assumes that you have bothered to read what is in the PO's portfolio. You can find this on the web. The NIH website has lots. Go to the IC you think is relevant. Go to the "extramural page". or just search on "program officers". It is absolutely fine to contact multiple PO's. They will not perceive you as cheating on them.

Now, if that doesn't get a response, try again in a couple of days to a week. Remember these guys are human beings. They have families and get to take vacations, and may even have more work than you do. Sometimes it takes a while.

If after multiple tries, they don't get back. Try another PO. Try the head of the PO's. They may have 40 of these emails, and it could be that yours is the least interesting to them. PO's also run the range of human beings: some are helpful, some take an interest and some are jerks. I've met all kinds in my life.

Finally, don't ever text a PO. Mostly their contacts are land lines, so it most likely won't work. But, texting is how their kids talk to them, not their PI's.

One response so far

Getting Funded -thoughts on the Nature Article

(by potnia theron) Dec 28 2017

There is a new piece up in Nature's N&V about getting funded. I'm irritated by the figure, which breaks the old/young distribution in a way that makes their point, but is not defensible on data analysis grounds (let's not even talk about breaking continuous distributions into discreet categories).

But there are some nice little gems tucked into the article.

Taking a modular budget, especially in light of the yearly budget-slimming cuts that the NIH applies to all awards, might hurt a young lab’s research. And the data suggest that it won’t improve the chances of winning a grant.

One of the things to keep in mind is that the budget, modular or not, is a minor, very minor part of the review, and technically not something that gets included in the scoring.

Separate out the scope of the work from the budget requested to do the work. Scope is a legitimate criterion: can the PI do the work proposed? Is it reasonable for the time requested? One of the big flaws I see is that a young PI is proposing to do a 30 year study, and not a 5 year one. But the money? Unless you are asking for Millions a year and a 20M$ overall budget, don't sweat this. Ask for what you need to do the research.

19 responses so far

quote of the day: Almost New Year Edition

(by potnia theron) Dec 27 2017

The past is finished. There is nothing to be gained by going over it. Whatever it gave us in the experiences it brought us was something we had to know.  ― Rebecca Beard


Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it -George Santayana 

Less nonsensical, but still.

Things are not black and white or green and blue. Forgetting the past and not knowing history opens one up to manipulation by others (and lots of current examples of that - starting with "bringing Christmas back to us"). But dwelling in the past is to deny the life we live now.

Happy New Year to One and All


No responses yet

Integration of the Curve of Little Deeds

(by potnia theron) Dec 27 2017

There's a meme going round twitter, to list the three things (most important) that you accomplished.


Doc Becca owned it:

I have tried several times to answer this. The trouble is my distribution of accomplishments is very flat, or rather, like the distribution of outcomes when you roll a die: everything is 1/6. I think of these three, and then of  those three, and then these other three.

Which leads me to this thought:

I didn't have a major event like Dr. Becca. I had lots and lots of little and small things, none of which stick out as One of The Most Important Personal Accomplishments.

So what are my small deeds? I gave away more than 10% of my income (if you need a nudge: Donor's Choose). I listened, without judging, to all sorts of people: my trainees, the folks who work in my lab, my friends, my step-ish kids, my family. I dealt with problems large and small in my lab, and made sure that even when things were rough, people felt that they were heard and problems were equitably solved. I was kind to people who were not kind to me. I did some good science, and got some good things published. I made life better for others, without their knowing it was me doing it. I stepped up when someone needed to, but did not fail to take care of myself. I loved, and got love back. None of it spectacular, or reaching the level of yes, these three points on the distribution stand out. In short, I lived.


No responses yet

NIH changes submissions, again

(by potnia theron) Dec 21 2017

I received the following today (and they didn't even call me "dear"). Before you do anything, talk to your grants office. Remember, you do not submit proposals, your University does. You are not awarded the grant. Your University is. Do not go down a pathway that you discover, on Feb 1 for Feb 5 submission is not what your University permits.

NIH grant applicants: Grants.gov downloadable forms submission option retiring Dec. 31

 NIH Grant Applicant,

 On December 31, 2017 Grants.gov will no longer allow grant applicants to download an entire application form package as a single PDF for offline data entry and later submission.

 Since you were involved in a grant application submitted using downloadable forms in 2017, we wanted to provide a final reminder to switch to one of the following submission options for 2018 submissions:

 1.     NIH’s ASSIST (learn more)

2.     Institutional system-to-system solution (if your institution has one)

3.     Grants.gov Workspace (learn more)

Our submission options page can help you compare features and considerations for each option. Ultimately your office of sponsored research or other group responsible for grant application submissions will decide which option is the best fit for you and your organization.

 If there is no business reason to choose one option over another, give NIH’s ASSIST a try. It’s a user-friendly, online solution optimized for NIH applications.

 Although Grants.gov will stop presenting their legacy downloadable forms package as an option at the end of this year, Grants.gov and NIH systems will continue to process previously downloaded application packages through March 2018.  If you plan to submit a downloadeded application package after December 31, 2017, you might want to consider downloading an extra copy of the forms package for the opportunity before Dec 31 just in case you run into a technical difficulty with the original.


No responses yet

Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo

(by potnia theron) Dec 21 2017

Holdo Rules. This post gets it, close to exactly. So, no spoilers (here, but yes at the link), but she's great and has purple hair.

I did not go home and clean house last night. I did not do laundry or work on that manuscript or read the postdoc's revisions to the neverending paper. I went to see The Last Jedi. 


A movie with grownups. A movie with older people being heroes and not just slipping into the haze of dementia. A movie that is not just about young people doing things, allegedly in real life, that are well beyond rationality.

(Small claim to fame: I saw the first one, which in the day was just called "Star Wars", in the theater, the day it opened. The theater was half empty and only filled with the college sci-fi nerds like me. It didn't catch on for a week or so. Also saw ESB and RoJ on opening days. That was much harder).

I want to be Holdo when I grow up.




One response so far

12 Months of Mistress of the Animals

(by potnia theron) Dec 21 2017

Okay, this is a thing. I've not done this before, but since IBAM is doing it, so shall I. It's the 12 month review of blog posts. It's the first line and a link to the whole post of the first thing from each month.

December: No smoking almost everywhere.

November: Medical School funding is one part of the problem that is driving the issues with career pathways, also known as the too many mouths at the trough problem.

October: I went to NYU to give a talk.

September: One of the hardest things to learn is how one’s effort translates into output.

August: I have frequently written about problems with trainees and what to do about Problem Trainees.

July: I am sorry, but I am actually doing science!

June: Sometimes the current incarnations of culture wars  spills over into the NIH grantsmanship (grantspersonship?) arena.

May: Power often corrupts and absolute power often corrupts absolutely, but the greatest corruption of all comes from withholding power, which grants victory to tyrants. -- Shlomo Riskin

April: When I was at MRU, I lived near the hospital and walked to work.

March: First, a word about exhaustion.

February: Wally wrote: (edited a bit for space, but go read the whole thing) I love being a postdoc – ... we don’t always have choices as to where we live.... Further, some of us belong to minority groups and living in some places in the US (where costs are often far cheaper) is just not particularly safe.

January: This post is my attempt to reduce my grumpiness index.


No responses yet

« Newer posts Older posts »