A Closer Look at the NIGMS AREA (R15) Program


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.

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Funding Opportunity: Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) Program


I’m pleased to share that the Academic Research Enhancement Award for Undergraduate-Focused Institutions (R15) funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) have been reissued (PAR-21-155 and PAR-21-154). The FOAs continue NIH efforts to support small-scale research grants at institutions that do not receive substantial funding from NIH. The grants emphasize providing biomedical research experiences for undergraduate students and enhancing the research environment at grantee institutions. Eligible institutions must award baccalaureate degrees in biomedical sciences, have a greater undergraduate student enrollment than graduate student enrollment, and must not have received more than $6 million per year of NIH support (total costs) in 4 of the last 7 fiscal years. Health professional schools are not eligible for this FOA and are not included in the $6 million eligibility calculation. There is another series of FOAs focused on health professional schools and graduate schools (PAR-19-134 and PAR-19-135).

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NIGMS Transitions AREA Support to Undergraduate-Focused Institutions

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NIGMS is realigning its support of the Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program to focus on providing research experiences to undergraduate students in scientific areas within its mission. Accordingly, we’ve published a new undergraduate research-focused AREA funding opportunity announcement (FOA) and are discontinuing our participation in the NIH Parent AREA FOA. The undergraduate research-focused AREA FOA will allow us to continue to: 1) support small-scale meritorious research projects at institutions that do not receive substantial NIH funding (less than $6 million in total costs in 4 of the last 7 years), 2) enhance the research environment at eligible institutions, and 3) expose students to scientific research so that they consider careers in biomedical sciences. Unlike the Parent FOA, the new announcement allows NIGMS to place its emphasis specifically on undergraduate research.

This new AREA FOA limits eligibility to undergraduate student-focused institutions or academic components within an institution (e.g., School of Arts and Sciences) in which the undergraduate student enrollment is greater than the graduate student enrollment, and it excludes all types of health professional schools. Additionally, the research team must be composed primarily of undergraduate students. This FOA aligns the application instructions and review criteria with the goals of the AREA program. We expect that these clarifications will lead to applications that better fit the goals of the program and provide reviewers the tools they need to evaluate the program as designed.
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A Look at Our AREA Grants


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.

 Fiscal Year  Number of  Applications  Number of Awards  Total Funding
 ($ in thousands)
 2004 128 48 $9,867
 2005 142 49 $10,382
 2006 171 50 $10,602
 2007 200 63 $13,387
 2008 167 53 $11,158
 2009 172 42 $8,903
 2010 199 36 $9,766
 2011 313 62 $18,441
 2012 306 56 $17,925
 2013 304 45 $16,035

Table 1. Number of R15 applications received and awarded by NIGMS and the total funding for R15s in Fiscal Years 2004-2013.

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