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  • R01 or R21? Choose the Appropriate Grant Type
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R01 or R21? Choose the Appropriate Grant Type

You know what you want to do and how you want to do it. Now you have to decide which grant type will offer your research the best funding opportunity.

NIH’s R01 and R21 grant mechanisms offer funding for different situations. How to choose between them?

What is different

The R01 is NIH’s standard independent research grant designed to provide support for a “specified,”
“circumscribed” project for which you generally need preliminary data. You can request up to five years, and depending upon your budget type, up to $500,000 per year in support. (If you request more than $500,000, you will need the Program Officer’s permission to apply.) The R01’s Research Strategy is 12 pages in length.

In comparison, the R21 is an exploratory / developmental funding mechanism, and your proposed research should have a “Wow!” factor — meaning it could lead to a research breakthrough or new methodology. The R21 is a one- to two-year grant, and preliminary data is not required. Applicants can request up to $275,000 for the two years combined, and the Research Strategy should be no more than six pages long.

Choose R21 for “exploratory” work

“I pursue an R21 when I have a new or, to use the NIH term,‘exploratory’ idea for which I still need time and funds to further the development and initial testing,” says Kenzie Cameron, PhD, Research Assistant Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University. She is studying health messaging design and has received both R01 and R21 awards.

For example, Cameron wanted to develop three sets of written messages related to the flu and flu shot for a study. “We wanted significant patient input on these messages, and the R21 was the perfect mechanism.”

The project was funded because Cameron was able to: 

  • demonstrate a solid plan
  • provide the expertise needed to accomplish what was proposed, and
  • justify the costs needed to reach the goal.

For example, Cameron and her team had previously created messages about an influenza vaccination and other preventive healthcare services. “What we sought in the R21 was the opportunity to develop and test print messages related to influenza and influenza vaccination using communication theory as a base,” she says. She justified the costs by demonstrating that she required funding to pay for participants, visual design services, and development and layout of the written messages. 

Cameron strongly advises you to prevent your R21 from looking like a mentored award. For example, if a senior faculty member is on the grant for 5 percent, and you’re budgeted for 25 percent, she says that’s fine. But if you’re on for 15 percent and the senior faculty is at 10 percent, reviewers may ask who is really completing the study, she says. 

By comparison, Cameron says she pursues an R01 when she wants to test an intervention for which she already has some pilot or preliminary data. 

The rule is NIH does not require preliminary data for an R21. But it’s nice to have, according to Dorothy Lewis, PhD, Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center. “Reviewers are human be-ings, and they like to see some evidence that what you propose is going to work. The best evidence of that is usually preliminary data.” 

For example, Cameron submitted some related prelimi-nary data for her R21 messaging proposal.
Having the related preliminary data helps the reviewer recognize the research’s trajectory by demonstrating the following:

  • what has already been done
  • how the grant proposal will build upon the preliminary research

At the same time, preliminary data is required for the R01. Lewis recommends you have at least one piece of data to support each aim that you propose. “It’s better to have less data and explain it, than cram the proposal full of data and leave off the explanation,” she says. 

Tip: If you already have a lot of data and apply for an R21, reviewers may say, “This isn’t exploratory.” In that case, you may not have a choice other than the R01.

Length may decide for you

The amount of time you need to accomplish your re-search project will play a key role in determining which grant is the best fit. For example, if you need three years of recruitment for your project, then applying for an R21 doesn’t make sense. 

Cameron warns against trying to compact your project. “You don’t want to try to fit a larger R01-type project into an R21 because it will be terribly frustrating. You won’t be able to do everything that you want to do, or you think you need to do, for the project,” she says. 

Cameron does not recommend proposing anything less than a three-year R01. “The one potential exception might be related to the amount of funding you need to do the project,” she says. “Although $275,000 in direct costs is a lot of money (R21 cap), it might not be sufficient, depending on what you are doing.”

Ask yourself: What is the length of the project? If it is a shorter term project that is novel and exploratory — and you don’t have much preliminary data — then the R21 is likely your best bet. 

Writing a grant takes a lot of time. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the R21 will be easier to write because it has fewer pages than the R01. Having only six pages for the R21 project description creates a challenge. “In those six pages there has to be an amazing, clear description, but you have lost room to delve into the detail you want to,” says Cameron. 

Tip: Give yourself plenty of time. NIH indicates it may take three months or longer to write a ready-to-go R01 or R21 application. 

Budgets weigh on decision

When establishing your budget, NIH states you should count 60 to 80 percent of your total request toward salaries. If you’re applying for the R21, you’ll have up to $275,000 to work with. “If most people do $150,000 in the first year and $125,000 in the second year, that’s not much money. So you can’t have a huge scope,” says Lewis. 

For example, if you think your study needs four different aims, but you are over your budget, you may consider reducing the number of aims or applying for a shorter R01. 

In comparison, the R01 budget is more flexible, and the money is spread out over a longer period of time. You can request up to $250,000 a year if you choose a modular budget. “What that means is, you don’t have to have individual justification for budget items,” says Lewis. 

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