Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA, R15) grants support small-scale research projects in the biomedical and behavioral sciences conducted by faculty and students at educational institutions that have not been major recipients of NIH research grant funds. Recently, a faculty member at an AREA grant-eligible institution wrote to NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch urging the Institute to support more AREA grants, arguing that these grants not only train students but are also cost-effective. This prompted us to take a close look at our portfolio of R15 grants. I’d like to share what we found. Thanks to Tony Moore and Ching-Yi Shieh for providing data in the figures.
NIGMS receives the largest number of R15 applications of any NIH institute. This is not surprising, since faculty and students at eligible institutions typically focus on basic research using model organisms and systems. Table 1 shows that the number of AREA grants awarded by NIGMS in each of the last 10 fiscal years has varied from a high of 63 in Fiscal Year 2007 to a low of 36 in Fiscal Year 2010 and that total funding for these grants has ranged from $8.9 million to $18.4 million. As shown in the first figure, NIGMS funds more R15s than any other institute, in recent years between 21% and 29% of the NIH total.
The NIGMS success rate for R15s tends to be higher than the overall NIH success rate, although both have been declining steadily over the past 10 years (Figure 2). This decline is due to several factors: an increase in the number of applications, a bump-up in the size of AREA grants in Fiscal Year 2010 from $150,000 to $300,000 in direct costs, and a flat NIH budget. Figure 2 also shows that success rates for R01 grants have been falling as well. While success rates for both NIGMS and NIH R15 grants had usually been higher than those for R01s, in the last several years they have been lower.
As you can see in Figure 3, over the 10-year period, the funds spent on R15 grants have fluctuated and have made up between about 0.7% and 1.3% of NIGMS’ budget for research project grants (which are largely R01s). Across NIH, AREA grants account for an even smaller amount, about 0.5% last year compared with 1.2% for NIGMS.
Does our investment in AREA grants pay off? There are a number of ways to estimate their impact, including quantitative measures such as the number of publications that result from the project, as well as outcomes that are more difficult to measure such as encouraging students to pursue careers in biomedical research and enhancing the educational environment.
While the number of publications per grant is far from a perfect indicator of research productivity, we found that the number of publications attributed to any AREA grant over its entire duration varies tremendously, as shown in Figure 4. Nearly three-fourths of all AREA grantees publish at least one paper, and some produce many publications over the lifetime of their awards. Considering that AREA grantees often have heavy teaching loads and employ undergraduates rather than graduate students and postdocs to assist with the research, these numbers are encouraging.
We hope you will share your AREA grant success stories with us.