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What is a planning grant, and how do they work?

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NIA Blog Team

There are a handful of run-of-the-mill ‘R’ grants offered by the NIH that are familiar to most investigators: everyone knows the R01. Ever heard of the R34? Not one of those that most people know.

The R34 is a “planning grant.”

The short answers to your planning grant questions are:

What do you plan in an R34?

You plan a clinical trial, or you plan a research project. The R34 is now a versatile grant mechanism that could be used for planning of basic research projects, complex epidemiologic studies, in addition to its original purpose of planning clinical trials.

What goes into the R34 application?

Include a study design and its components, meaning you know what to do in broad terms but will spend time refining the components.

Why does the NIH pay for planning grants?

The NIH Institute wants an initial review of the plans ahead of an application to execute those plans. That means paying for the plan is separated from paying for the full trial or research.

How do I get a planning grant?

Submit an R34 grant application in response to an Institute’s Funding Opportunity Announcement.

Let me expand on these answers about planning grants.

There are two categories of what you might be planning to do with an R34.

The first and more common category is a clinical project (study or trial). At NIA, our Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology supports a number of these planning grants. Here’s a current Funding Opportunity Announcement that does a good job of identifying what might go into a clinical R34. One advantage of a planning grant for clinical studies is that it enables you to explore study designs, test feasibility of recruitment strategies or other methodologies, anticipate participant burden, conduct necessary analyses to help inform the design and sample size of the more comprehensive or definitive study. You will be able to submit a better conceived and organized clinical trial after having a planning grant.  

The second category is a planning grant for a basic research question; my Division of Aging Biology is a newly minted user of this one. Generally, an Institute might request R34 applications when current data provide strong support for the importance of the problem to be addressed. The application must then show the feasibility of the possible experimental approaches and reliability of methods to interpret outcomes.

If that’s what NIH wants, then what goes into an R34 application?

The question is: What do you need to bring together – that you don’t now have in hand – to show the NIH that a project or trial is important and feasible? You might propose the methods or technologies that would be used, but also propose to determine whether they are best compared to others that are available or emerging.

  • You might identify the relevant human populations or samples for the study, and then propose to determine whether those are really appropriate to the goals of the eventual basic research, clinical study, or trial.
  • You would propose to develop any forms needed for human subjects recruitment – if you are going to involve human subjects – and develop strategies for regulatory or safety issues.

Why does the NIH give money to people so they can plan to spend money (design a project)?

The NIH needs to determine the scope and feasibility of a project: benefit versus cost for the bottom line, and assurances about the safety of human subjects, if applicable.

Not every Institute uses planning grants, but if they are used, then the Institute must issue a Funding Opportunity Announcement of some kind. There is no parent program announcement. NIA issues planning grant announcements for specific topics (RFA-AG-15-004 on basic epigenetic studies and PAR-13-040 for clinical trials are examples). By contrast, some NIH institutes have general announcement for investigator-initiated planning grants for clinical trials (NIAID, for example, has PAR-13-150).

How do you get an R34?

Easy: respond to the Funding Opportunity Announcement. If you don’t show up for the audition you surely won’t be in the show.

Of course, then there are the reviewers and evaluation by program in the process, so no outcome is guaranteed. And, getting the planning grant does not guarantee a subsequent award for the project being planned, although it can be an important step forward.

What is a U34?

It is a planning grant with one or more federal employees participating. Different NIH Institutes implement this in different ways, so be sure to speak with the Scientific/Research Contact listed in the Funding Opportunity Announcement to learn more.

Where can I get more information about the nuts and bolts of planning grants?

Read more from about the NIH R34 Planning Grant Program and the NIH U34 Planning Cooperative Agreement. NIAID also has some great resources on planning grant application preparation, though their process may be slightly different than NIA’s.

One final tip: It’s especially important to be sure you speak with the Program Officer before applying. (You can find the right contact person in the Scientific/Research Contact(s) section of the Funding Opportunity Announcement.) Because planning grants are less common, you will want their input. We can’t tell you the likelihood of getting funded, how many other applications or inquiries are made, or who is your competition – but we can offer suggestions about responding to the announcement.

Do you have other questions about planning grants? We’ll be watching the comments, below, so share them there.


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