The NINDS R35 Program: An innovation experiment

NIH relies heavily on investigator-initiated R01 grants to fuel its science. This democratic approach is responsible in large part for the success of the American biomedical research enterprise. However, NIH has added more selective grant mechanisms to fill gaps, promote the transition to independence, or take advantage of emergent opportunities. A few years ago, NINDS launched a special program, the Research Program Award (R35), to fund an individual’s neuroscience program for a longer time period: eight years. In addition to hard work and persistence, scientific discovery relies on creativity and the courage to try new methods to answer important questions or to pursue an insight that leads to an entirely new set of questions. The intent of the R35 is to provide funding stability that enables even greater innovation in the laboratories of investigators with a proven track record and a proposal judged to have outstanding potential by a peer review committee. 

In a previous message, I described how the program is designed to reduce some of the burden of continuously preparing new grant submissions and allow nothing less than a culture change – giving investigators the opportunity to participate more directly in the lab, mentor trainees, explore new technologies, test new ideas, and elevate the quality of the lab’s work. In exchange for an award that supports all of the NINDS mission-relevant research for up to eight years, R35 investigators must commit at least 50% effort to overseeing the research program. The amount of the award will be generally close to the recent NINDS funding to the laboratory.  Exceptions may be given to earlier-stage investigators or those with lower total NINDS funding (less than $350K direct cost), since the R35 must allow for growth, and not limit the productivity of rising stars. For those with more substantial funding, the R35 budget is capped at $750k in direct costs per year. For NINDS, this ongoing pilot program is almost budget neutral, as the R35 investigators would likely have obtained the same level of funding from R01 grants, but only after spending many months on grant submissions. Our hope is that this stable source of funding will free investigators to embark on more ambitious, longer-term research programs and foster an environment for creative research that reduces the pressure to generate results quickly to renew short-term grants.

The R35 mechanism is intended to support a broad spectrum of investigators. Any investigator is eligible to apply for the R35 who currently has an R01 in the 4th or 5th funding year, i.e. those who are likely in the process of writing a new R01 grant. Peer reviewers for R35 applications are instructed to evaluate the investigator’s potential future scientific trajectory based on past productivity and the likelihood that stable R35 funding will create a more innovative environment for the lab. Since the program’s inception two years ago, we have funded 38 investigators, five in what might be termed their early mid-career (10 years or less from their first R01 award). We hope that this message and the new funding opportunity will attract more applications from earlier-stage neuroscientists for whom the R35 “culture change” may have greater impact. In addition to investigators at the earlier stages of their careers, we also hope to attract investigators whose labs have been long supported by one R01, investigators recently moving into neuroscience from other disciplines (e.g., engineering, chemistry, computer science) and investigators from diverse backgrounds. Our goal is to enable a cohort of investigators with more time to devote their creativity to the pursuit of cutting-edge science. Diversity is one of our greatest strengths and is crucial for research on the nervous system, drawing on a wide range of expertise in multiple scientific and academic disciplines, and from PIs across career stages, to unravel the mystery of the human brain and address the underlying causes of a myriad of neurological disorders. 

Related Links:

R35 Funding Opportunity

R35 Program Information and Frequently Asked Questions

R35 Recipients

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Form Approved OMB# 0925-0648 Exp. Date 06/2024