Continuing our regular posts detailing funding trends for NIGMS programs, here we provide a closer look at the NIGMS Academic Research Enhancement Awards (AREA) R15 program. AREA grants support small-scale research projects involving primarily undergraduate students at institutions that received no more than $6 million in funding from NIH in 4 of the past 7 years. Awards can be up to $300,000 in direct costs for the entire project period of up to 3 years. Unlike most of our other Research Project Grant (RPG) awards, which have noncompeting renewals on an annual basis, R15 funds are obligated in the first year and last the duration of the project period. Grantees can renew these awards in a competitive proposal process.
NIH offers two different R15 awards: AREA and the Research Enhancement Award Program (REAP). The key distinction between them is that AREA grants are available to undergraduate-focused institutions, while REAP grants are available to health professional and graduate schools. See the FAQs about the programs for a list of common questions. NIGMS participates in only the AREA program.
Figure 1 shows a history of R15 award investments from NIGMS and the rest of NIH on an annual basis from Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 to FY 2021. Because funds for R15s are obligated in the first year, all R15 funding data reflect competing award obligations.
NIGMS / NIH R15 Funding, FY 2012-2021
Figure 1. NIGMS and NIH Funding of R15 Awards, FY 2012-2021. Illustrated is the total funding for R15 awards by NIGMS (solid purple bars; left axis), NIH as a whole (green-striped bars; left axis), and the fraction of NIH R15 funding provided by NIGMS (black dashed line with circles; right axis). NIGMS has provided 30% to 40% of all funds awarded to R15 grants over the past 7 years.
Although NIGMS participates in only the AREA program, the Institute currently supports over one third of all R15 awards at NIH. As shown, the level of funds awarded to R15 grants has decreased by nearly $30 million over the course of the last 2 years at NIH, and NIGMS has seen a decrease in approximately $10 million in funds in the past year. To better understand what might be driving this observation, we report on trends in applications and awards to the AREA program at NIGMS.
Figure 2 shows the number of competing AREA R15 applications and subsequently funded awards on an annual basis, as well as the success rate of these applications measured as a fraction of competing projects that receive funding. Success rates and the number of awards that NIGMS makes in any year are affected by several factors, including the number of incoming applications and their review outcomes, existing commitments to other RPGs, overall budget, and funding policies.
NIGMS Competing R15 Applications, Funded R15s, and Success Rates
Figure 2. Number of NIGMS Competing R15 Applications, Funded R15s, and R15 Success Rates, FY 2012-2021. The number of R15 applications submitted in the indicated fiscal year (blue dashed line with circles; left axis) reflects that a total of 193 applications were submitted in FY 2021, compared to the 265 applications submitted in FY 2020. The number of funded competing R15s in the indicated fiscal year (green solid line with squares; left axis) conveys that NIGMS funded 81 competing awards in FY 2021, a decrease from 106 awards in FY 2020. The R15 success rate (gray dotted line with triangles; right axis) is the percentage of unique reviewed project proposals that received funding. To calculate the success rate, applications for the same project submitted more than once in the same fiscal year are counted only once. Between 3% to 5% of applications see two submissions (original and resubmission) in the same fiscal year, meaning that the success rate is slightly elevated relative to an award rate that simply counts the number of awards as a fraction of all applications received. We have used success rates for consistency with other NIH data sources. The success rate of 42% in FY 2021 is a slight increase from that of FY 2020 (40%).
As shown above, the number of applications to the NIGMS AREA program declined by over 40% in the past 4 years, suggesting that the decrease in NIGMS funding for the program has been primarily due to a decrease in incoming applications. It’s likely that the high funding rates for NIGMS AREA applications between FY 2015 and FY 2018 led in part to the decrease in applications because funded AREA investigators can only have one active grant at a time. Thus, as more principal investigators receive funding, applications would be expected to decline. NIGMS remains committed to the AREA program and encourages investigators at eligible institutions with NIGMS mission-relevant research projects to apply. Although the number of awards slightly decreased from FY 2020 to FY 2021, the success rate of AREA R15 applications is at an all-time high (42%), nearly 10 percentage points higher than the overall RPG success rate at NIGMS for the year (33.4%). In fact, the NIGMS R15 success rate has been higher than the overall NIGMS RPG success rate every year since FY 2015. Looking deeper into this fiscal year’s data, we will now show how the review score correlates with the likelihood of funding for AREA applications.
AREA R15 applications that are reviewed and discussed receive an overall impact score ranging from 10 to 99, with lower scores reflecting more favorable review outcomes. Although the overall impact score is considered in making funding decisions at NIGMS, we use a number of factors to determine whether an application is awarded. Because we receive far fewer competing AREA applications than R01 applications on an annual basis, Figure 3 consolidates review scores and award outcomes for AREA applications over the course of the past 5 years.
NIGMS R15 Applications: FY 2017-2021
Figure 3. Number of Funded and Unfunded AREA Applications by Overall Impact Score, FY 2017-2021. R15 applications tend to be funded (solid green bars) at overall impact scores between 10 and 40, with more awards in the 40-50 range made in recent years. Not included are applications with overall impact scores greater than 60 or those that weren’t discussed by the study section and did not receive an overall impact score.
In general, applications with overall impact scores lower than 40 are most likely to receive funding, with some additional awards made in the 40-50 range, and few awards made beyond a score of 50. This trend holds across all 5 years, with the note that most of the awards in the 40-50 score range were made in FY 2020 and FY 2022, when success rates were higher than previous years.
As with all our NIGMS programs, we regularly monitor our portfolios and are committed to providing transparent information to the research community about our investments, policies, and activities.
We would like to acknowledge our colleague Alexandra Ainsztein, who served as the previous program officer for AREA at NIGMS, for the insights provided on this post.