Principal Investigators Association

No. 129: R01 or R21: Which Would You Recommend for an Early Investigator?

Reader question: I am a new investigator and I am having difficulty deciding if I should submit an R01 or a R21. Could you please tell me how to choose between the two of them?

Expert comments:

Keep these in mind before deciding:

Major Differences

The R01 is NIH’s standard independent research grant designed to provide support for a “specified,” “circumscribed” project for which you generally need preliminary data. You can request up to five years, and depending upon your budget type, up to $500,000 per year in support. (Note: If you do request more than $500,000 per year in support you will need the Program Officer’s permission to apply.) The R01’s Research Strategy is 12 pages in length.

In comparison, the R21 is an exploratory/developmental funding mechanism, and your proposed research should have a “WOW!” factor – meaning it could lead to a research breakthrough or new methodology. The R21 is a one- to two-year grant, and preliminary data is not required. Applicants can request up to $275,000 for the two years combined, and the Research Strategy should be no more than six pages long.

Preliminary data

The rule is NIH does not require preliminary data for an R21. But it’s 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.”

For the R01, preliminary is required. Lewis recommends you have at least one piece of data to support each aim that you propose. (Note: If you already have a lot of data and apply for an R21, reviewers may say, “This isn’t exploratory.” In that case, you may not have a choice other than the R01.)

Length may decide for you

The amount of time you need to accomplish your research project will play a key role in determining which grant is the best fit. For example, if you need three years of recruitment for your project, then applying for an R21 doesn’t make sense.

Ask yourself: What is the length of the project? If it is shorter term project that is novel and exploratory – and you don’t have much preliminary data- then the R21 is likely your best bet.

Do not make the mistake of thinking the R21 will be easier to write because it has fewer pages than the R01. Having only six pages for the R21 project description creates a challenge. “In those six pages there has to be an amazing, clear description, but you have lost room to delve into the detail you want,” says Kenzie Cameron, PhD, research assistant professor in the Departments of Medicine and Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University.

 Budgets weigh on the desicion

When establishing your budget, NIH states you should count 60 to 80 percent of your total request toward salaries. So, keep in mind with the R21 “if most people do $150,000 in the first year and $125,000 in the second year, that’s not much money. So you can’t have a huge scope,” says Lewis.

 In comparison, the R01 budget is more flexible, and the money is spread out over a longer period of time. You can request up to $250,000 a year if you choose a modular budget. “What that means is, you don’t have to have individual justification for budget items,” says Lewis.

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