A student works with equipment in a chemistry lab.

Guest post: NIH review panelist offers funding mechanism overview

A student uses 3D printing equipment while her professor supervises.

The following guest post was written by Dr. Gary Lorigan. Dr. Lorigan is a professor in Miami University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Since 2010, he has served on 4 NSF and 18 NIH study panels. During that time he was a member of the Biochemistry and Biophysics of Membranes (BBM) NIH Study Section and served on several NIH and NSF instrumentation panels. Below, Lorigan shares an overview of NIH funding mechanisms and offers advice for Miami researchers based on his experience.

The NIH has a number of research-related mechanisms including the R01, R15, R21, and R03 grant mechanisms.


The R21 is the NIH’s Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Award. It offers initial funding to support a new project for two years. The narratives for these projects are short (six pages) and no preliminary data is needed. Having said that, preliminary data is always nice to have. According to Dorothy Lewis, PhD, professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center, “Reviewers are human beings, and they like to see some evidence that what you propose is going to work. The best evidence of that is usually preliminary data.” If you do show preliminary data in a R21 proposal, make certain that it is convincing.


Like the R21, the R03 or Small Grant Program is shorter in duration (up to 2 years at $50,000 per year) and is meant to support pilot feasibility studies in which new research methodology and technology are being developed. Like the R21, the R03 does not require preliminary data.

R01 and R15 (AREA)

The R01 and R15 NIH programs both support “regular” research projects, but the research expectations for R01 applications are higher than for R15 applications. More funds are typically awarded for R01 than R15 projects. Under the R15 program – also known as the Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program – a project can receive up to $100,00 per year in direct costs with a total direct cost cap of $300,000 for three years. Under the R01 program a project can receive up to $500,000 per year in direct costs for up to five years. Proposed budgets over $500,000 must be approved in advance by a program officer.

In an R15 application, it is important that you demonstrate you currently work with or plan to work with undergraduate students. This is where Miami has a significant advantage when compared to other academic institutions, as we have demonstrated a very strong emphasis on undergraduate research and training. If you have published papers with undergraduate students, have been part of the FYRE (First Year Research Experience) program, or have supported undergraduate research in your lab, the reviewers will look favorably upon that, so you should clearly point it out in your R15 proposal.

Collaborative projects

Regardless of the NIH program you apply to, if you don’t have the expertise for a particular part of the proposed work, then it is imperative that you collaborate with researchers who do. For collaborative projects, make sure your collaborator provides a letter clearly stating his/her expertise and interest in the project. Likewise, if you need a special technique for a certain phase of the project, make sure you get a letter from an expert who will assist you with the work.

 Written by Gary Lorigan, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Miami University.

Chemistry lab photo by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services. 3D printing photo by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services.


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