Getting Independent


Dear GrantDoctor,I would like to know what kind of applicants NIH R03 grants are intended for. In my case, for example, I am a recent postdoc from overseas working in a Canadian institution. I'd like to know whether I'd be a suitable applicant, or is it more oriented to junior faculty with an established group?Thanks in advance,Henry

Dear Henry,

Although you may qualify, the fact that you are a postdoc, and that you work in Canada, makes it unlikely that you would win an R03 unless you have an outstanding record of accomplishment, a very compelling idea, and a first-rate application.

R03s are confusing because the institutes that use this mechanism for investigator-initiated grants--14 that I'm aware of--use it in a variety of ways; some other institutes use the R03 mechanism only for "special initiatives," special-purpose programs publicized through requests for applications (RFAs).

Most institutes that employ the R03 mechanism make no distinction between new and established investigators. To the best of my knowledge only one institute, the National Institute for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), uses the R03 mechanism specifically to fund new investigators. The program announcement for NIAMS's R03 program is available on the NIH Web site. The general R03 program announcement, which includes a list of the institutes that accept investigator-initiated R03 applications and minimal information about the various ways the mechanism is employed by the various institutes, can be found there as well. You'll notice that NIAMS isn't listed here, even though NIAMS does accept investigator-initiated proposals; presumably this is because NIAMS's use of the program doesn't conform to the generic R03 specification.

The NIAMS R03 program, which has been around for years, is intended "to stimulate and facilitate the entry of promising new investigators into areas of research of interest to the NIAMS." In this respect the NIAMS R03 awards resemble the old NIH-wide R29 (FIRST) awards, which were discontinued 5 years ago; FIRST awards, however, were larger, granting up to $350,000 over a 5-year span, with a maximum of $100,000 in any year. R03s, in contrast, have a maximum duration of 2 years and a maximum award of only $25,000 per year.

Other differences between R03s and FIRST awards may indicate a change of attitude toward young investigators in recent years. FIRST awards excluded not only experienced investigators but also young investigators who could not adequately establish their scholarly independence; in most cases this excluded postdocs from consideration. R03s--and, for that matter, today's R01s--are more democratic, in principle at least. As the standard NIH verbiage puts it, "any individual with the skills, knowledge, and resources necessary to carry out the proposed research is invited to work with their institution to develop an application for support." There's less of an emphasis on independence than there used to be; perhaps this is an acknowledgment of the growing importance of collaborative work, or of the difficulty of making the transition to full independence. (It should be noted, however, that this language is not particularly new.)

Notice, though, that two conditions do apply: You must be able to demonstrate the skills and knowledge needed to do the work, and your institution has to be willing to provide the necessary resources and to work with you to develop an application. These conditions are fulfilled by most faculty members at research institutions, but few institutions allow postdocs to play the NIH-research-grant funding game. If your institution is willing to let you play, and if you have lab space and access to the equipment you need, the only thing that stands between you and grant success is a good idea, a great proposal, and a few hundred established investigators who also submitted applications who are intending to do similar work.

Which is to say that meeting the basic requirements is one thing; winning an award is something else. Most R01 announcements, after all, use exactly the same language, yet R01s are hard to get even for faculty members, let alone postdocs. Many NIH study sections are, no doubt, willing to take more risks with the smaller R03s than they are with big-money R01s, but given your Canadian employment and your status as a postdoc, the odds are stacked against you.

If you decide that an R03 award is right for you, keep in mind that an R03 is not just a low-budget R01; it's intended for smaller projects that don't take as long. Particular emphasis is placed on whether the work can be completed on the budget and schedule specified in the proposal.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

Dear GrantDoctor,I'm a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and I have an NIH NRSA fellowship that runs out in September of 2004. I was wondering if I could get any funding after that, either for myself or in grant form for my lab, since I believe I will be here for at least one more year after 2004.Thanks,Nora

Dear Nora,

Some NIH institutes and centers (ICs) routinely allow extensions on NRSAs beyond the typical 3-year duration. Others don't. The only way to know is to call the program administrator in charge of the NRSA program that writes your paycheck.

If your IC is not one that allows extensions, see if your PI can carry your salary for a year or so from research grant funds; as an experienced postdoc you're largely independent and a great value at any salary you're likely to receive. Also consider applying for transition awards from NIH, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, or some other organization. The BWF awards are highly competitive; the smaller NIH transition awards are a bit easier to get. See Funding for Fledglings and search the GrantsNet database for more information on transition awards. You may also find useful information in A K-Klinic, Parts 2, as well as the follow-up response from NIH training guru Wally Schaffer.

Be Well,

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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