Loan-Repayment for Biomedical Researchers


1. Loan-repayment for biomedical researchers

2. Awards for reseach in Malaysia

Dear GrantDoctor,

Whatever happened to the funding proposal in Congress to help physicians who decide to pursue research repay medical school loans? I read about this proposal about 1 to 2 years ago but I haven't heard anything about it since. Is the proposal still alive? Did it get funded? As a physician choosing to become a researcher and struggling to meet hefty loan repayments, I would appreciate hearing from you about this and other grants or programs that directly address this issue.


Jong H. Yoon

Dr. Yoon:

I don't know which specific proposal you are thinking of, but loan repayment programs have been around for several years. The Office of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director even includes a special office called the Office of Loan Repayment.

To qualify for NIH loan repayment programs you must be affiliated with NIH in some way: as an employee, an intramural fellow, or as a grant recipient. NIH employees and fellows working at NIH labs qualify for NIH Intramural Loan Repayment Programs. NIH grant recipients qualify for NIH Extramural Loan Repayment Programs.

Intramural programs include the NIH AIDS Research Loan Repayment Program (AIDS-LRP), which aims to attract scientists, physicians, and nurses into NIH-based AIDS research; the NIH Clinical Research Loan Repayment Program (CR-LRP), which is intended for scientists with "disadvantaged backgrounds" but has no disciplinary limitation; the General Research Loan Repayment Program (General-LRP), which also has no disciplinary limitation; and the NIH General Research Loan Repayment Program for ACGME Fellows (ACGME-LRP), which is for scientists in ACGME-accredited training programs. The first three programs pay up to $35,000 per service year; the fourth is a pilot program, currently paying off only $5000 of your loan for each year you serve. All of these programs allow you to extend your NIH employment, and the loan-repayment period, year by year as long as your loan has a remaining balance and you continue to make good progress in your work. These grants are taxable, technically, but NIH will also cover most of your tax obligations.

To qualify for the Clinical LRP, you must prove that you are from a "disadvantaged background." Usually this requires applicants to document family income and size, but you can also qualify if you show that your background was substantially inhibiting in other, nonfiscal ways. These applications are evaluated case-by-case; there are no set criteria.

NIH's LRPs require either a 2-year or 3-year commitment, depending on the program, and Congress has built in severe sanctions for awardees who don't fulfill their obligations. If you leave NIH before your commitment is up, you must repay whatever amount NIH has dispersed to the lender plus a substantial penalty. If you leave during the first year, the penalty is equal to $1000 for each month of your original obligation, so a 2-year commitment would mean a $24,000 fine. After the first year the fines are smaller, but still substantial. All programs are limited to U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, and permanent residents.

Because intramural LRPs are reserved for NIH employees and trainees, the first step toward getting one of these awards is to get a job at NIH, so you will want to start at NIH's Research and Training Opportunities page.

NIH has three extramural loan repayment programs. The main difference between the extramural awards and the intramural ones is that instead of being limited to employees of NIH, the extramural awards are limited to NIH grant recipients. Extramural LRP recipients must have received a postdoctoral National Research Service Award, an individual postdoctoral fellowship (F32), an institutional postdoctoral traineeship (T32), an R01 research grant, or any of a dozen or so other NIH research grants, career development awards, and cooperative agreements.

Curiously, NIH designates their loan repayment program for clinical researchers as LRP-CR, presumably to distinguish it from the intramural CR-LRP. Despite the similar acronyms these are distinct programs. The LRP-CR is not limited to researchers with disadvantaged backgrounds; indeed, the LRP-CR has no special disciplinary or demographic requirements.

The NIH also has extramural loan repayment programs for researchers in pediatrics (PR-LRP) and in contraceptive and infertility research (dubbed CIR-LRP, adding acronym insult to injury). Extramural loan repayment programs function much the same as intramural programs. All pay $35,000 per year of service, require a multiyear commitment, and are limited to U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, and permanent residents.

In addition to these NIH-wide awards, the National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD) has two loan repayment programs, both of which started late in 2001: the NCMHD version of the clinical research LRP (designated ECR-LRP) and the more targeted Health Disparities Loan Repayment Program (HD-LRP). These programs aren't listed on the LRP office's Web site, but they are listed on the NIH Guide's 3 August 2001 update. The ECR-LRP is a distinct award from both the LRP-CR and the CR-LRP; it is available for researchers in any field, but unlike the other extramural clinical research loan repayment program, the ECR-LRP is reserved for researchers from disadvantaged backgrounds. By targeting scientists with disadvantaged backgrounds, the NCMHD hopes to increase the diversity of the medical-research workforce--a principle goal of NCMHD. The other NCMHD loan repayment program, the Health Disparities LRP (HD-LRP), targets researchers working to reduce disparities in health, e.g., those who work with diseases that disproportionately affect minorities and the economically disadvantaged. These programs are so new that a regular schedule hasn't yet been established. Application deadlines for the next award cycle haven't yet been set, but they are expected to be sometime in the spring of 2002.

All of NIH's loan repayment programs are competitive. According to Kenya McRae, program analyst for NCMHD, in the first round of the new NCMHD programs 45 awardees were selected by NCMHD from among 120 to 130 applicants. Applicants are screened to assure they meet the basic criteria; awardees are selected from among qualified applicants on the basis of scientific merit. NCMHD also looks for evidence that scientists are serious about pursuing a research career. "We want to find people who will stay in medical research," says McRae.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) runs a program similar to the NIH extramural programs. The HRSA program is reserved for researchers from disadvantaged backgrounds, but you don't have to work in a particular field, at a particular place, or have a particular grant to qualify. Like the NIH programs, you must be a U.S. citizen, national, or permanent resident to qualify. This program pays up to $20,000 for each year of service. A 2-year commitment is required.

Good luck.

--The GrantDoctor

Dear GrantDoctor,

I have a new laboratory that started about 4 years ago. I need to find grants to fund projects at the graduate and postdoctoral level in the area of molecular biology and immunology of diseases such as hepatocellular carcinoma/hepatitis B or colorectal cancer. The funding is mostly required for reagents and consumables as the laboratory is well equipped. Please advise on suitable grants to apply for research based in Malaysia.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Associate Professor Dr. Seow Heng Fong

Dear Dr. Fong:

Your question was, frankly, a stumper, until the Doctor enlisted the assistance of Next Wave Singapore Editor Jennie Wong. Wong was up to the challenge: She located a private foundation-- the Malaysia Toray Science Foundation--that should suit your needs. The Toray Foundation was set up by Toray Industries to promote and encourage development in science and technology in Malaysia. Though not specific to biomedical science, many Toray awardees are biomedical researchers. If you have a strong record of accomplishment and good research ideas, you should be very competitive for these awards.

Best Regards,

--The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!

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