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Should I Apply for an R01, R03, or R21 NIH Grant Award

Release Date: December 01, 2014
Category: Scientific Grant Writing
Author: Sonia M., Ph.D., E.L.S.

The NIH R-series mechanism provides funding support for research projects. The most common types of R-series grant funding are R01, R03, and R21 programs. These funding mechanisms each provide different levels of funding support, and they each fund a specific type of project. Choosing the right grant type for your specific needs is critical to your funding success (and can even affect your career success). While your program officer is the best resource to help assess which mechanism is best for your particular project, we have provided information here about the different mechanisms as well as some points to consider when choosing a grant funding mechanism.

R01 (Research Project Grants)

The R01 funding mechanism is one of the most common sources of NIH funding for independent investigators and can help establish your research career. Like almost all types of NIH funding, these grants are highly competitive; although the exact percentage of funded applications varies by year, institute, and specific request for applications (RFA) or program announcement (PA). The NIH posts RFAs typically as a one-time request for grant applications on a specific topic, and they generally have one submission deadline. PAs are posted when an institute is interested in developing a specific research area, and these requests will generally have multiple submission dates and will be ongoing for approximately 3 years. The current NIH RFAs and PAs can be found at the following website (

An R01 grant provides funding support for up to 5 years. The modular budget format allows you to request up to $250,000 per year in direct costs, but you can also request higher amounts if you do not choose a modular budget format. The higher level of funding and longer funding period for R01 grants should allow enough time and resources for researchers to collect and publish data. These publications can then be used as preliminary data to support renewal or new grant applications.

A successful R01 grant application requires that you have preliminary data to support your proposed research. Each institute sets its own payline (i.e., the percentile score at which applications will be awarded funding). If you are a new investigator or in the early stages of your career, you may benefit from the higher payline that many institutes have for new investigator applications.

R03 (Small Grant Projects)

The R03 funding mechanism is designed to fund small, short-term research projects for which little or no preliminary data are available. Awards are limited to $50,000 per year for a maximum of 2 years, and not all NIH institutes participate in R03 funding. These awards mainly support established investigators who need a minimal amount of funding for a small project. Because these grants provide little funding support and have a limited timeframe, they are generally not an ideal funding mechanism for new investigators.

R21 (Exploratory/Development Grants)

R21 grants are designed to provide funding for exploratory research that has the potential to lead to advances in health research. Typically, these projects will have little preliminary data in support of the proposed research. Although no preliminary data are required, in practice, most investigators do include such data, and reviewers tend to score proposals that have some preliminary data higher than those without. As with R03 grants, not all NIH institutes provide R21 funding.

R21 grants only provide up to 2 years of funding support and a maximum support of $275,000. They are not renewable. For these reasons, the NIH cautions against applying for an R21 grant solely to obtain preliminary data for an R01 application. Because the R21 funding period is so short, there is typically not enough time within the 2 years to obtain sufficient preliminary data, publish the results, and prepare a successful R01 application to avoid a gap in funding. R21 applications also do not provide any special considerations for new investigators. However, if your proposed research will not require a long timeframe and you have limited preliminary data, an R21 grant may be a good choice.

How to Decide Which Grant is the Best Fit

When you are trying to decide the best funding mechanism, RFA, or program announcement (PA) to apply for, your program officer is the best resource to help you make the decision. They are very familiar with the goals of each opportunity and can help you avoid wasting an application for a grant type that does not suit your particular needs and specific research project.

R01 grants are the most common research funding mechanism for independent investigators and can provide a long period of support with a large amount of funding support. R03 and R21 grants provide smaller amounts of support and are designed for smaller, feasibility projects that do not require as much time or funding. All three of these award mechanisms fund approximately the same percentage of the applications received, so none of them are “easier” to successfully receive funding for.

For more information, the following resources may be helpful:

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