Understanding NIH R-Series Grants

The National Institute of Health (NIH) Research Grants (R-series) constitute the largest category of funding and support at the federal level. It is also the most sought-after research grant program that provides funds to new, early-career, and experienced investigators as well as institutes and research centers in the form of:

  • Direct research cost
  • Salary
  • Equipment & supplies
  • Travel & other allowable costs
  • Indirect costs, i.e., sponsors, etc.

Each year, the NIH grants tens of thousands of R-awards to sustain biomedical research and development (R&D) at universities and medical research institutes. However, grants are not easy to obtain because of the hypercompetitive biomedical ecosystem.

Each year, more and more investigators seek the NIH awards. In 2016 alone, the NIH received over 40,000 applications which were about double the number in 1998, i.e., less than 20,000 application. Applications for R01, the NIH flagship research project grant to aid early-career scientists, soared by 97% in the same year.

For an aspiring new or early-career scientist, it is important to understand the type of R-awards so that you can apply for funds confidently. Aiming for one type of fund but applying for another will result in administrative rejection sans review as is the rule of NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs).

The R-series includes the following grants:

  • Research Project Grant (R01)
  • NIH Small Grant Program (R03)
  • Scientific Meeting Grants (R13)
  • NIH Research Enhancement Award (R15)
  • Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Program (R21)
  • Early Career Research (ECR) Award (R21)
  • NIH Planning Grant Program (R34)
  • R41 and R42: Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Grants (R41/R42)
  • Small Business Innovation Research Grant (SBIR) (R43/R44)
  • NIH High Priority, Short-Term Project Award (R56)

A detailed look at each type will help understand the nature and composition.

1.     Research Project Grant (R01)

The R01 is the oldest and the most prestigious grant awarded to independent investigators conducting biomedical research. It is a funding vehicle used to launch and promote an independent career and can be solicited through almost all Institutes and Centers (ICs) of the NIH.

R01 is awarded for 3-5 years and provides up to $500k without approval. Requests can be made for a larger amount, but the budget application needs to reflect and justify the actual needs accurately. R01 is a renewable fund.

For a principal investigator (PI) or biomedical institute seeking R01 award, your research has to be health-oriented, discrete, and specific. It can be lengthy; may span anywhere between four to five years and still be covered by the grant. The uninterrupted flow of funds gives you plenty of time to pursue and complete project, publish findings and start crafting a new application should you require a secondary analysis.

R01 is particularly beneficial if you are a new or early-career investigator because it requires little or no preliminary data. Your proposal, however, has to have a sound research approach and plausible medical solution to increase the chances of success.

As you apply for R01 grant, it is important to note that contrary to common belief, R01 grants are highly competitive and not easy to get by. Each year, the NIH posts a one-time request for applications (RFAs) on a specific research topic with a given deadline. You can find more information on the research cycle and due dates can be found here.

2.     NIH Small Grant Program (R03)

The R03 supports small research projects planned for a short duration of time, i.e., <2 years. These projects can be:

  • Pilot studies
  • Small, short-term & self-contained research projects
  • Feasibility studies
  • Collection & secondary analysis of preliminary data
  • Development of new research technology

The R03 grant is ideal if you have limited resources and need just a little bit of financial backup to broaden and round off the project. The R03 budget for direct cost is up to $50,000 per year. It is most suitable for student investigators who are pursuing studies for a dissertation. However, it does not cater to doctoral students.  It is non-renewable.

Like R01, R03 grant does not require preliminary data, but it can be included if you, being the PI, deem so. However, you need to be mindful of the fact that not all ICs provide R03 grants. You can find more on The R03 Parent Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) can be found here.

3.     Scientific Meeting Grants (R13)

The R13 grant supports scientific meetings, societies, and conferences that are in line with the NIH healthcare agenda. Each NIH IC has a specific, individual scientific mission that is different from the other IC’s mission. R13 only supports domestic organizations though; foreign institutions are not eligible to apply.

If you are seeking R13 grant, your application must contain;

  • “Permission to submit” letter from the concerned IC
  • Conference plan
  • The logistical arrangement, and
  • Detailed budget request
4.     NIH Research Enhancement Award (R15)

The R15 grant is reserved for institutes that are not major recipients of the NIH grants. This award is given to undergraduates and graduates as well as the faculty of the institutes conducting small-scale biomedical and behavioral studies. It provides up to $300k for projects spanning less than 3 years.

The goal of R15 is to:

  • Support meritorious and quality research
  • Provide exposure to students
  • Encourage and strengthen the academic and research milieu at institutes

R15 award has been updated in 2019 and will now provide:

  • Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) – for Undergraduate Institutions
  • Research Enhancement Award Program (REAP) – for Graduate Schools and Health Professional Schools

To check your eligibility for the grant, click here.

5.     Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Program (R21)

As the name suggests, the Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Program (R21) is designed to nourish the early stages of a clinical project. It is an investigator-initiated grant and particularly caters to:

  • Pilot studies
  • Feasibility studies

It provides up to $275k for a period of two years which is usually sufficient for the early stages of project development. It does not require preliminary data and can be obtained through most of the ICs.

For R21 grant, the NIH requires that your proposed studies have the potential to open new realms of clinical development. The reviewers will favor your application if it:

  • Proposes a high-risk study leading to a scientific breakthrough
  • Contains novel techniques, models and methodologies
  • Impacts clinical research and behavioral and biomedical science

The policy, procedure to apply and application for R21 grants can be found here.

6.     Early Career Research (ECR) Award (R21)

The R21 lays the foundation for an independent career for ambitious researchers investigating biomedical or behavioral aspects of communicable diseases (hearing, taste, speech, smell, balance, etc.).

The R21 grant also covers:

  • Secondary analysis of existing data
  • Small and limited research projects
  • Development of research methodology and technology
  • Translational and outcomes research

The R21 grant is ideal for a PI or program director who needs funds to obtain sufficient preliminary data and ultimately develop an independent scientific/biomedical career with the help of the R01 grant.

7.     NIH Planning Grant Program (R34)

R34 supports the initial stages of a clinical trial or a research project. The grant can either provide a direct cost for the project or help:

  • Establish the research team
  • Provide research oversight
  • With data collection and management
  • Design and develop research tools
  • Prepare operational manuals

Like R01, R03, and R21, R34 does not require preliminary data. However, unlike R01, it is non-renewable. The grant is worth $450k for a total of three years.

The grant permits early peer-review for a clinical trial. It also provides support for developing essential elements of the trial and based on the elements planned, covers the full-scale trial.

To increase your chances of securing R32, make sure the proposal is conceptual, rational, and groundbreaking.

8.     R41 and R42: Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Grants (R41/R42)

STTR R41/42 grants aim to promote scientific, medical and technological innovation between research institutes (RIs) and small business concerns (SBCs) at phase I and phase II levels of a study or trial.

  • Phase I – comprises a feasibility study to determine the scientific basis of the proposed research. R41/42 provides about $150k for phase I which roughly lasts for a year.
  • Phase II – comprises the execution and expedition of research and development efforts described in phase I. R41/42 provides 1000k for phase II which lasts for 2 years.

R41/42 also encourages technological transfer between RIs and SBCs. The SBC may employ single or multiple PIs or program directors for the study.

The grant is exclusive to U.S. businesses only and can be obtained from almost all ICs. More information on R41/42 can be found here.

9.     Small Business Innovation Research Grant (SBIR) (R43/R44)

SBIR R43/44 promotes scientific innovation and research and development in for-profit, private organizations. It sponsors biomedical and scientific ideas that have the potential to benefit healthcare and medical science as a whole. The grant also helps commercialize the innovative idea or medical technology which may be in the form of:

  • Tools
  • Devices
  • Products
  • Services

The R43/44 also intends to:

  • Encourage small businesses, particularly women-owned businesses, which lack social or economic means but have the potential to participate in technological innovation.
  • Enhance private-sector participation in federal-level technological development
  • Uplift small and private businesses by stimulating scientific development

SBIR grant is an investigator-initiated who proposes, on behalf of the business, the rationale, plan, procedure, and potential impact of the technology in the application addressed to the NIH or NIGMS (National Institute of General Medical Sciences).

The SBIR program has the following phases:

  • Phase I (R43) – to establish feasibility and scientific merit of the research proposal. The potential for commercialization of the product/devise is also determined in phase I. R43 grants sum up to $150k.
  • Phase II (R44) – to execute research efforts proposed in phase I. Phase II is conducted once phase I is granted by the NIH. It continues research or R&D efforts initiated in Phase I. Phase IIB grant is worth $1000k and is renewable.
10.     NIH High Priority, Short-Term Project Award (R56)

The R56 grant funds R01 renewal applications that just fall outside the scope of NIH ICs but are highly meritorious and boast priority scores. These applications may be new or competing.

The R56 fund provides interim support that lasts for short-term only, i.e., one or two years.

The interim support is sufficient for the PI, usually, an early-career investigator seeking an independent career or seasoned investigators seeking interim funding, to gather additional data or meet other requirements for application renewal. For an application to qualify for R56 grant, the quality has to be superior and top-notch.


  1. NIH Data Book. Research and Training Grants: Competing Applications by Mechanism and Selected Activity Codes. https://report​.nih.gov/nihdatabook/ (accessed February 2, 2018).
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