Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland this is All About Grants.

Megan Columbus: Welcome to another edition of All About Grants. I’m your host, Megan, from the NIH Office of Extramural Research. Today we have with us Dr. Erica Brown who’s a program manager for NIH’s Academic Research Enhancement Award Program, that’s the AREA program. Erica, welcome to the show. Can you tell us a little bit about the purpose of the AREA program?

Erica Brown: Sure! Thanks for having me. The AREA program is actually a congressionally mandated program that targets research dollars to institutions that have not participated heavily in the NIH extramural programs. So the goals that we devised were not only to support meritorious research, but to also expose students to research that they can go on to make further contributions to the nation’s research infrastructure. But also to strengthen and build the research environment at these less research-intensive institutions.

Megan: I believe this is one of NIH’s small grant programs. What’s the dollar limit associated with these?

Erica: Yeah, that’s right, it’s one of the three small grant programs and the cap is, in terms of the dollar limit, is $300,000 in direct costs over the entire duration of the award, which could be up to three years.

Megan: And you mentioned that these we’re targeting particular types of institutions for these awards. Can you tell us how we determine eligibility for the program?

Erica: Yeah, so we have two areas of eligibility that we need to consider. And so the first is institutional eligibility. So institutional eligibility is limited to domestic institutions that offer either baccalaureate or advanced degrees in the health-related sciences, but the key sticking point is that those institutions have to receive less than $6 million a year in NIH research and training dollars. Then the second component is actually for the individual PI. So the PI has to have a primary faculty appointment at an AREA-eligible institution. And the second point for eligibility for the PI is that they actually can’t be the PI of an active NIH grant at the time that they are awarded an AREA grant.

Megan: Erica, can you explain a little bit more by what you mean by a “primary faculty appointment”?

Erica: Sure. That’s actually some new language that we’ve added into the new AREA program announcement that we released just this past November 2011. And so we’ve added that language so that we could primarily exclude those who have a full-time appointment at a non-AREA eligible institution and then have an adjunct faculty appointment at an AREA-eligible institution. So we had a few people coming in under that criteria. And so to eliminate that we put in text that says that you have to have a primary faculty appointment at an AREA-eligible institution; however, we do allow the institutions to define what that is. So, if you go to your website or to your office of sponsored programs, you can probably find out what that means, but we, at this point, are still allowing institutions to define what “primary faculty appointment” means.

Megan: So once an investigator has determined that their institution is eligible to apply, and that they themselves are eligible to apply, do they need to be concerned about whether the NIH institute that they’re interested in submitting an application to participates in the program?

Erica: Yeah, they do. So, while almost all of the institutes and centers, or ICs, at the NIH participate in the AREA program, there are two exceptions to that: the Fogarty International Center and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. But if you go to the AREA program website, you’ll be able to find this information, the list of all of the participating institutes, and the areas of science that they focus on.

Megan: And like on any of NIH’s funding opportunity announcements they all have a section towards the top of the announcement that says “participating institutes” and so for any funding opportunity announcement people should look at that list.

Erica: That’s right.

Megan: So you said that there was a funding opportunity announcement that was specific to AREA, which they can find in the NIH Guide for Grants & Contracts. They can also find that, I’m sure, on grants.gov. Would you happen to have the number of that to make it easier for people to find it?

Erica: Well, I can tell you the program announcement number is PA-12-006. So you can find it on grants.gov or you can simply Google search “PA-12-006” and you’ll be able to find the program announcement easily.

Megan: Given that these are part of NIH’s small grant program, is the requirement for preliminary data the same as it might be for an R01 or for another substantial award?

Erica: It’s not. So because this is a small grant program in line with that you do not have to have preliminary data; however, in this funding climate, we always advise applicants to be the most competitive you can be, and that often includes preliminary data, or at least a very strong rationale for doing the science that you’re proposing.

Megan: And are there specific submission requirements associated with the program?

Erica: Yes, it’s very important that applicants pay attention to a part of the program announcement that’s called “Application and Submission Information.” So if you go to that part of the program announcement, you’ll see what I’m about to describe. So we request that all of our applicants provide information about the profile of the student body at your institution so that we have a better understanding of the type of student that will benefit from this award. We also ask you to describe your institution, meaning the characteristics that make your institution eligible for an award, as well as how this award will benefit your institution. We ask for evidence that you, as a PI, actually have experience in working with students in research, and we also ask that you provide some evidence that the institution supports your research project. So for example, this would include a letter of institutional commitment providing lab space or special equipment, protected time, credit for student involvement, things along that line, which is some evidence that your institution actually supports your research project.

Megan: What you’re saying applies to anybody who’s applying to any NIH program, which is read the funding opportunity announcement, read it carefully, and be responsive to what it’s asking for.

Erica: That’s right.

Megan:  Right. In this case it might be particularly important because you are so specific in terms of what you’re requesting. What about the review process? Is there any special consideration given to AREA applications given that they are small grants, given that they are from institutions that have less research there?

Erica: Yeah, that’s actually a great question because these are some of the recent changes we’ve made to the program in the past six months or so. So the first major change that we’ve made is, as of fall 2011, CSR began clustering the AREA applications either within their assigned study section or in a special emphasis panel to help the reviewers be able to focus on the goals of the AREA program, and to really set these apart from our other major research grant programs (the R01, the R21 and R03). The other major change that we’ve made is we have AREA-specific review criteria that are now defined in the new program announcement that was released in Nov of 2011. So, starting with all of the applications that come in for the receipt date on February 25th, 2012, all of these applications will be evaluated using these new AREA-specific review criteria.

Megan: And when you refer to CSR that’s NIH’s Center for Scientific Review, and all the AREA applications are reviewed there?

Erica: That’s right.

Megan: Can you tell us about the use of collaborators or consultants in an AREA application? Certainly, I know that for newer investigators and less well-funded investigators that can be a particularly important piece of other types of applications. Is the same true here?

Erica: That’s right. We have the same guidelines as for the other research project grants, but there are some important considerations you need to keep in mind with the AREA program, and it all concerns eligibility. So, you can use a collaborator from either an AREA-eligible or ineligible institution, but we just caution our applicants to keep in mind the goals of the program when they’re writing their application, so that if you are collaborating with an investigator from an AREA-ineligible institution you just make sure to explain in your application how that collaboration will still further the goals of the program at your institution.

Megan: Is the goal to have investigators who have been receiving AREA awards eventually get an R01?

Erica: No, that’s actually not the intent of the program. The intent of the program is to support research at AREA-eligible institutions, once again, the less research-intensive institutions, while exposing the students at those institutions to research and also strengthening the research environment. Clear cut, those are the goals of the program. These are small grants and they do fall more in line with the available time, personnel, and resources of these institutions. However, I will say that many of our investigators do go on to obtain an R01; that’s simply is just not the goal of the program.

Megan: Even if they don’t get an R01, technically, AREA awards could they support an investigator for the life of their research career if they’re doing research in addition to their other duties at their institution?

Erica: Yes, it’s important for investigators to keep in mind that AREA awards are renewable, which means that you can use these awards to actually sustain your research project and your research career until it’s natural end. However, it’s important to remember that you can only have one AREA award at a time, and you can’t have another NIH grant when you’re provided an AREA award. So you can’t use this to build your career, but you can use it to sustain it.

Megan: Any final advice for investigators interested in applying Erica?

Erica: Yeah, so when we provide advice to the AREA community we focus on both the institution and the investigators, because it’s very important for institutions to make a commitment to building and sustaining a vital research environment, especially when there isn’t one currently ongoing at your institution. So for the institution, we like to ask that all of those who are involved in sponsoring our research programs understand the NIH system, which means all of our guidelines, our submission procedures, and the peer review system, for example. We also recommend that institutions make a commitment to establishing an environment where research can succeed. And I’ve given some examples of this before when I talked about institutional commitment in a research project. And then for the investigators it’s very important to understand the review criteria and remember that this is actually what you’re being evaluated on. You should remember that this is a research award and not a training award. This is something that many of our investigators get confused with. So remember that your application has to focus on hands-on research and should not include any didactic training or coursework. And then finally, I would just advise investigators to remember the goals of the AREA program as you prepare your application. So in addition to your research project, your application needs to include clear plans for exposing students to research projects and, in particular, projects that will make them excited about a career in science, as well as how the AREA award is going to strengthen the research environment of your institution, so just keeping in mind, once again, the goals of the program.

Megan: And a final piece of advice from me I think is as always as we develop our applications and as we begin writing our applications, the program official at NIH is your point person to help guide you through the process should you have questions.

Erica: That’s right and, once again, you can find all of that information, the point person for all of the institutes and centers at NIH on our AREA program website.

Megan: Thank you so much for joining us today, Erica. For NIH and OER this is Megan Columbus.

Announcer: To find out more about the AREA program, go to our website, grants.nih.gov, and search for AREA, that’s A-R-E-A.