Answers to Questions About Challenge Grants

Are you thinking of applying for one of the two-year NIH Challenge grants? APA scientists have raised many questions about what costs and benefits there may be to winning support for two years as opposed to the usual four years with a Research Project Grant (R01).

Are you thinking of applying for one of the two-year NIH Challenge grants?  APA scientists have raised many questions about what costs and benefits there may be to winning support for two years as opposed to the usual four years with a Research Project Grant (R01). Challenge grant applications are due April 27, 2009, so decisions must be made quickly.

We asked two harried but helpful NIH research managers—Richard Suzman, PhD, Associate Director of the National Institute on Aging for Behavioral and Social Research, and Jovier Evans, PhD, who heads the National Institute on Mental Health’s Geriatric Translational Neuroscience Research and Pharmacologic Intervention Program—to address a few frequently asked questions about the NIH Challenge grants and supplements funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus legislation).

Q:   If I were to receive a Challenge grant, may I apply to renew it after two years?

Dr. Suzman:  No, Challenge grants cannot be renewed, but the investigator could use another mechanism such as an R01 to request continuation of the work.  Ideally the Challenge grant would make significant progress that could serve as the basis for an application that continues the research.

Q:  Some in our department are advising early career scientists not to apply for a two-year grant because of the shorter term of support—possibly less prestige. Do you agree?

Dr. Suzman:  Well, the investigator would lose their early stage or new investigator status, and they would have to weigh that against the value of the Challenge grant providing a significant research advance and platform for an R01 application.   All the other grant mechanisms will still be alive and operating over the next few years.  Indeed with everyone focused on Challenge grants, some counter-trend focus on regular R01s has its attractions.  We do not know what the funding situation will look like in two years.

Dr. Evans:   We are advising early career scientists not to go with Challenge grants for the simple reason that we feel they need to start off with a full five years of support to work on their R01.  Having to scramble to put all the work into two years is no small task, and there are enough pressures on new faculty that we feel it is best that they get the longer period of support as in the traditional five year R01.  If they should go for the Challenge, and get it, they are no longer eligible to submit as a “new” investigator for a regular R01.

Q:  How might we best decide whether our research is appropriate for a two year grant?

Dr. Suzman:  I think that what would be ideal would be if after the two-year project the researcher has a good probability of having been able to demonstrate significant concrete progress – a discovery or science advance,  significant findings, showing the practicality of a very innovative idea or methodology, etc. that would become the basis for the next  application.

Dr. Evans:  Research that is limited in scope so that it fits in the time frame is best.

Q:  We realize NIH program officers are overextended right now, but that we would still be well advised to speak with them. What should we know before we call?

Dr. Evans:  Before investigators call program staff, have them check the NIMH home page, and in particular, regarding Challenge grants, have them view either the NIMH Challenge grant topic page or the OBSSR site for the 4 (of 5) challenge areas that we joined with OBSSR.  It’s important to note that while we joined OBSSR on these topic areas, we advise that projects intended for NIMH in response to those OBSSR topics are also responsive to the NIMH strategic plan.

For our supplement programs, be sure to look at the NIMH web pages for the topic areas under which we are accepting supplements (links are available here and here).  Also visit the NIHM page discussing the summer research experience.

Dr. Suzman:  My general advice is to email first rather than call—emails are more efficient and the Program Officer’s email reply might provide a better platform for a phone call.  Read the guidelines and any FAQs first, and have a clear idea of which bullets in the Omnibus solicitation you want to respond to—ideally include draft specific aims and the general topic in your email. (Information on NIA-specific challenge grants, along with the program officers who are in charge, may be here.  Information on NIA priorities for administrative supplements are located here.)

Q:  Do you have other advice about how scientists should approach the various two-year funding opportunities?

Dr. Suzman:  The stimulus package is a once in a lifetime opportunity and we are very glad that Congress provided NIH with this unparalleled opportunity to accelerate scientific progress in improving health.  It offers all sorts of opportunities for new infrastructure, directions and discoveries. I would think as creatively and innovatively as you can.   I would encourage applications with transformative ideas in some of the exciting new areas that we have been advertising in aging such as social neuroscience, neuroeconomics, behavioral economics, behavior genetics, cognitive science, the basic science underlying behavior change and maintenance, translation etc.

Dr. Evans:  Be sure to address the intent of the stimulus package in responding to these special initiatives, and be aware of the special reporting requirements.   (While some applications might be submitted with modular budgets (some competitive revisions), all applications will require a detailed budget before support is given.)