Questions About NIH R01 Competing Renewals Answered

In my post on directing the research program in my lab, I received a few questions about competing renewals (grant applications seeking to renew an R01 major research grant for another four or five year project period). So here are some answers.

After our grant got funded some experiments based on this project took off on a very productive and interesting tangent of their own, but with a somewhat different focus. These experiments were funded in part by the current grant and in part by other (non renewable) sources. We also made progress towards the original aims, but not as much as we made with the deviant aims. Furthermore, my grant got cut from 5 years to 3 years so some of the proposed experiments were never even started, yet they are still very viable and good experiments and especially interesting since the original aims panned out quite nicely.

So what should be my strategy? Should I (a) Write a new grant using the stronger deviant aims, use the new data from the original aims to write up the renewal even though we only completed about 50% of the proposed work due to the cut budget and recycle some of the same (uncompleted) experiments as part of the renewal plus a few more based on their logical extension, or (b) use the stronger deviant aims as the basis for the renewal and forget about the original aims, or (c) use a no-cost extension to bring the original aims further along and then put in the renewal. Mind you that the reason the experiments from the original aims are weaker is because they were building blocks for the really cool experiments we haven’t done yet. So is it sensible to re-propose them as the first aim of the renewal (tweaked a little bit of course)?

Before I answer the questions directly, we need to establish four foundational understandings for the analysis:

(1) Competing renewals do *massively* better in study section than new R01s. You can find cumulative scoring histograms at the NIGMS blogge posted by Jeremy Berg that clearly establish this. The reason is almost certainly a combination of the self-selection for submission by PIs who were productive in the prior project period and the penchant of grant reviewers to consider productivity in the prior project period to be highly predictive of the likely impact of the studies proposed for the new project period.

(2) Reviewers of a competing renewal do not get to see the specific aims or other parts of the grant application that was funded for the prior project period. All they get to see is the summary statement of the prior funded grant, and the Abstract and Public Health Narrative. This means they can only figure out the specific aims of the prior project period from what you have included in your Abstract and Narrative, what is in the resume of discussion and written critiques of the summary statement, and what you tell them in the competing renewal application. With the new bullet-point critique structure and if you were smart enough not to enumerate your specific aims in the Abstract or Narrative, you thus have near absolute control of what the reviewers know about your prior specific aims and proposed studies.

(3) It is much more important to get your competing renewal funded than to get a new R01. This is for several reasons: (a) the more times you renew an R01, the greater a history of sustained productivity in that line of research you have demonstrated, and the greater weight it will have with a study section; reviewers are very, very careful before they give a shitty score to a grant that has been rolling along for multiple project periods or even decades and (b) your chances of being awarded an R37 MERIT award depend on having an R01 that has been renewed a number of times and (c) tenure and promotion committees want to see that you can renew your R01s.

(4) The same exact preliminary data can support an infinite number of non-overlapping grant applications so long as the specific aims and proposed studies those data are used to support are distinct in each grant. For example, let’s say you develop a new technique and validate to discover some interesting shitte about a particular biological process. All those exact same data can be used to support one R01 in which the specific aims are directed at further development/refinement of the new technique to apply more generally or to some other particular biological process, one R01 in which the specific aims are directed at deploying the new technique in another biological process to which it already applies to test hypotheses about that other process, and one R01 in which the specific aims are directed at deploying that technique and other existing techniques to further drill down into the interesting shitte you have already found about that particular biological process.

Based on these foundational understandings, we draw the following conclusions:

(1) In deciding whether to submit a competing renewal, give very little weight to how specifically the actual shitte you have achieved fits within the metes and bounds of the previous specific aims. You control the narrative of how what you have achieved was relevant to the goals of the prior project period, so make it work.

(2) In deciding whether to submit a competing renewal, give a lot of weight to how productive you were, independently of the exact relationship of what you published to the previous specific aims. If you were very productive, definitely submit a competing renewal.

(3) Your best, most exciting new ideas that you have in hand should absolutely go into the Specific Aims of the competing renewal you are writing. Don’t save them for some future new grant. You’ll have more new exciting ideas when it comes time to write that new grant.

(4) Unless you are truly in a situation where you will go from poor productivity to excellent productivity in the time frame of a no-cost extension, don’t voluntarily take one. Submit just early enough so that if you get funded on the first submission, you will have no gap in funding, but not so early that if you have to go to a resubmission, you still won’t have a gap in funding.

(5) Your competing renewal can go in a substantially different direction than the previous project period. You can even change the title of the grant! I have had a competing renewal get transferred to a different program officer in the Institute based on such a change in direction. Competing renewals even get transferred between Institutes if the directions changes sufficiently. No one in peer review or program cares. What they care about is that you are continuously productive and doing interesting science.


  1. Namnezia says

    Wow, thanks for the answer. Based on what you wrote I think I mis-strategized my resubmission plan, but as you said good ideas come up all the time. But I won’t wait for the no-cost extension as you suggest, I’ll submit the renewal this fall since we had a pretty productive run and waiting for one more paper won’t make a difference. It’s good to know that they don’t have access to the original aims too.

  2. arrzey says

    Excellent advice. I would only add that a no-cost extension is very very little time (basically “please sir, may I have another”), and the timing is flexible (or at least used to be). Thus, if you submit the competing renewal (which does have a new name in NIH speak), but then get a score that sucks, you can submit the n-c ext while you put in the 2nd shot at the renewal. If by chance you get funded, you can spend it down quickly. It is a grant management strategy to ensure that you are not without funding.

  3. whaddevuh says

    “give very little weight to how specifically the actual shitte you have achieved fits within the metes and bounds of the previous specific aims.”

    This might be true in general, but I was recently on a study section where one of the reviewers worked out that the renewal grant proposed largely the same line of research as the original (5 years ago). It was clear from the publications that none of what had been proposed had been done, and there was zero explanation for that. The reviewer gave it a terrible score, and the study section seemed inclined to agree.

    So be careful with this strategy.

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