The NINDS Research Program Award (RPA) – piloting a new approach to funding neuroscience research

Posted by Robert Finkelstein
Director, Division of Extramural Research, NINDS

For many years, the R01 (Research Project Grant) has been the go-to mechanism through which NIH supports investigator-initiated research. As most of you know, an R01 award supports an individual project described prospectively by an investigator in a grant application. During the last 60+ years, many biomedical breakthroughs originated in laboratories that were stably funded through one or more long-running R01 grants.

Unfortunately, life has become more challenging for principal investigators (PIs) and the labs that they oversee. The doubling of the NIH budget (1998-2003) led to a sharp increase in the number of investigators applying for funding. In addition, the NIH budget has failed to keep pace with inflation, leading to dramatic declines in the funding “paylines” of most NIH Institutes. For example, at NINDS our payline dropped from 26% during the doubling to 12% in 2006, and is currently set at 14%. Even worse, these declining funding rates have come at a time of unprecedented opportunities in basic and applied neuroscience.

R01s and other grant awards are relatively short in duration and support individual projects, rather than the overall research program of a laboratory. Since grants have become increasingly difficult to get, many PIs must work feverishly to support their laboratories by continually submitting and resubmitting applications. A 2012 study external link showed that federally funded investigators now spend close to half of their time writing and administering grants.

These pressures affect the kind of research that investigators undertake, which in turn affects NINDS’s ability to fulfill its mission. We believe that it is important for PIs to be free to pursue longer range, innovative, high-risk research without feeling pressured to generate results quickly to renew short-term grants. We also want investigators to be able to follow up on serendipitous findings and explore new areas. Finally, we would like to reduce the amount of time PIs spend writing and administering multiple grant awards, in order to enable them to engage in research directly, either at the bench or by closely supervising and training students and postdocs. We believe that this will improve the research and training environment in their laboratories, ultimately inspiring talented young scientists to pursue careers in neuroscience research.

To achieve these goals, NINDS is piloting a new funding strategy – the Research Program Award (RPA)described in an RFA that we have just released  (see FAQs and related Notice of Correction). The RPA, which will use the R35 funding mechanism, is designed to allow an investigator to obtain sustained and flexible support for his/her overall research program. An RPA will provide funding for up to $750,000 per year (direct costs) for up to eight years in duration. The RPA will support all the NINDS-related research in a PI’s laboratory (certain exceptions are listed in the funding announcement) by consolidating the PI’s current grant(s). Since, as described below, the RPA is intended for investigators with a track record of success, applicants must have had at least five years of R01 or R01-equivalent support. Because the RPA is intended to support the majority of the work of a laboratory, the PI must commit at least 50% effort to overseeing the research program it supports.

What should an RPA proposal look like and how will it be reviewed? First, the application will be limited to six pages; importantly, it will not include Specific Aims. The PI will describe, through the proposal and the new Biosketch format, his/her major scientific contributions and proposed research program. The review committee will evaluate the investigator’s track record and assess the significance and long-term relevance of the proposed research program. Reviewers will also be asked to consider the PI’s demonstrated strong potential to do rigorous research and his/her record of service to the scientific community (e.g., organizing meetings, serving on study sections).

Is the RPA intended only for senior investigators with a long history of success and multiple grant awards? Definitely not! Although the award is not appropriate for beginning PIs who have never received an R01, we anticipate funding a significant number of investigators who are at relatively early stages of their careers. We also plan to fund investigators who have traditionally supported their labs through a single R01, and who have a track record of high-impact, groundbreaking research. Our goal is to enable a diverse group of investigators with demonstrated potential to devote their time and creativity to the pursuit of cutting edge science.

Although we expect to fund most RPAs for eight years, there will be a progress evaluation of each research program after four-to-five years of funding. If there has been little demonstrable progress, the RPA may be discontinued at that point, although we will provide bridge support to allow the investigator to transition back to more traditional NIH funding mechanisms. Assuming the RPA pilot is successful, we will reissue this initiative to solicit both new and renewal applications. We look forward to hearing feedback from the community as part of this assessment, and depending on the lessons we learn from this pilot, we might adjust the size or some of the details of this program.

As Extramural Director, I am committed to limiting any potential negative impact of the RPA program on the NINDS payline. As mentioned above, RPA is being piloted through an RFA, and the money to support these awards will be set aside from the general pool used to fund unsolicited applications. In principle, setting aside the $20 million we plan to invest in this pilot could decrease the payline by 1 percentile. However, many of the PIs that we will fund through RPAs would have received NINDS funding through R01s or other mechanisms. Therefore, these investigators are not receiving ‘extra’ funding from NINDS, but are simply receiving their funding through a different grant mechanism.

For applicants who currently have multiple NINDS grants, we anticipate that the RPA funding level will be somewhat less than that of their total current NINDS grants. In return for this small reduction in overall funding, such investigators will have the stability of an eight-year award and increased freedom to explore new avenues of research. For investigators who currently have a single R01, we anticipate that the RPA funding level would equal their current funding level and, if justified by the proposed research plan, allow room for their program to expand.

We realize that a new funding mechanism can’t resolve the budgetary challenges that NIH has faced during the last decade. However, we hope that the RPA will provide increased stability for a subset of our investigators, giving them increased freedom to do groundbreaking research and train the next generation of neuroscientists.

The RFA describing this program has just been released, with an application receipt deadline of October 6, 2015 – letters of intent are due September 6 and are strongly encouraged. There are important details of the program that I haven’t described here that are discussed in the RFA. An important part of optimizing and ultimately evaluating the success of this initiative will be hearing your suggestions. I encourage you to offer comments to this blog post to let us know what you think about this pilot program, and how you believe we should judge whether it is successful or not.


  1. This looks like a great program! I intend to apply. Developing measures of success is clearly very important. One way to do this would be to compare productivity at e.g. the 5 year mark with productivity during the 5 years prior to the award of the RFA. This might require some finesse, since PIs will shoot high with 8 years of funding. So for example, instead of 2 Nature papers and 1 Neuron paper in the previous 5 years perhaps the PI publishes only 1 Science paper and 2 PNAS papers – but they open up dramatic new understanding of a field.

    • Perhaps Professor Spitzer would care to elaborate on how the journal in which articles are published are the “measures of success” that should be used to determine productivity under these awards? There are some that would argue that funding approaches, such as NIGMS’s MIRA and this RPA pilot, are intended to emphasize the pursuit of “dramatic new understanding” and to free investigators from the increasing need to pursue indirect proxy markers such as journal identity merely to stay funded. [An analogy with quarterly profit statements and the detrimental effects of managing for this proxy marker diminishes solid core business building in the corporate world seems useful here.]

  2. I applaud the increased length of the funding period, and the idea of combining the efforts of a lab into one funding package. Those could help tremendously in reducing the administrative burden. However, a six page application seems too short for such a weighty level of support.

  3. I also like this initiative very much and I hope it will be successful. I think that the six-page limit for the research strategy section is appropriate because it will help reviewers to understand the big picture without having to worry about technical details. From a practical point of view, it will be important to allow small percentage increases every year in the budget, which will keep the value of the grant steady over an eight-year period.

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