Imagine this: you’re a young physician, and like the rest of your peers, you have a significant amount of medical school debt. Now add some debt to that from graduate school, and maybe even a growing family. You’ve just completed a grueling residency, and you’re excited to get started with your physician scientist career. But your classmates are taking private practice jobs that will pay them substantially more than the academic position you just accepted. And as you start to add up the expenses that go along with this stage in your life, it hits you – how in the world are you going to pay off all of your debt as you start your career? For most of us, this scenario isn’t hard to imagine; it’s actually a pretty good description of what is actually going on in our lives.
Although many of us went through medical and/or graduate school supported by various fellowships and grants, excessive student debt can still derail the career of a promising young scientist. For this reason, the NIH has a set of Loan Repayment Programs (LRPs) to prevent (in their words) “the escalating costs of advanced education and training in medicine and clinical specialties” from “forcing some scientists to abandon their research careers for higher-paying private industry or private practice careers.”
There are five LRPs for extramural (not employed by the NIH) researchers: Clinical Research, Pediatric Research, Health Disparities Research, Contraception and Infertility Research, and Clinical Research for Individuals from Disadvantaged Backgrounds. Note that “Basic Science” is not one of these, so make sure that your project fits under one of these umbrellas. The financial support is significant, as the NIH will repay up to $35,000 annually in return for a commitment to engage in NIH mission-relevant research. New awards are always two years, for a maximum of $70,000 total over the award period. LRP awards are also renewable, meaning that you can get the bulk of your loans repaid. Of course, there are eligibility requirements for degrees, educational debt, and research effort. More information on these details can be obtained from https://www.lrp.nih.gov/apply. One important caveat is that you must commit at least 50% of your time towards research. The NIH also has significant fines in place if an awardee does not fulfill the research requirements during the initial 2-year contract period. More details about these and other aspects of the program are available on the LRP website as well. The frequently-asked questions page: https://www.lrp.nih.gov/faqs is another good resource.
Both of us received clinical research LRP awards. The process is not difficult; we were both in the early stages of writing our K-applications and we able to turn those into fundable LRP applications as well. You do not need to already have funding! At first thought, the benefit seems straightforward: who wouldn’t want a significant portion of your student loans paid off. If you think of the loan payment as income, the gap between an academic appointment and the private practice position becomes noticeably narrower. This is especially true, as the NIH actually pays at least some of the tax you would pay on your award (which is considered income). Specifically, the NIH makes a payment of 39% of your yearly award directly to the IRS on your behalf. So, if you were awarded the maximum $70k amount over two years, this would mean that the NIH pays over $48,000 towards your taxes – representing a pre-tax value of almost $100,000.
Additionally, the benefits of an NIH LRP award goes beyond the monetary farther than that. A LRP shows your department chair that the NIH believes that you are a good candidate for future funding, and that your research is important. This can also be a real confidence booster, especially for those (most?) of us with a pile of rejected grant applications on our desks (or hidden in a drawer). The knowledge that your research progress is going to be evaluated for a renewal encourages productivity. Simply put, there is nothing like the knowing that someone is going to be reviewing your productivity to enable you to stay focused on your research progress.
Finally, although the LRP program does not fund protected time for research, the 50% effort requirement can be used to your advantage. That is, you’ll have at least one argument for no less than 50% research commitment during your contract negotiations, if you are junior faculty not currently covered by a T32 or mentored grant that has such requirements in place.
The goal of this post is to make sure that everyone was aware of the LRPs, and to encourage all to apply. The success rate isn’t the typical < 10% pay line seen for NIH research grants – in fact, the new award success rate was 46% for clinical research in 2015 and the renewal success rate was 71%. Clearly, any early-stage investigator would be crazy to not try for a LRP award!
Best of luck! ~ Jim Ibinson & Keith Vogt