NIH All About Grants Podcast: Loan Repayment Program – An Overview

 

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

 

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>> Kosub: Hello, and welcome to another edition of NIH's "All About Grants" podcast.  I'm your host David Kosub with the NIH's Office of Extramural Research, and today we're going to be talking about a program that I feel like every researcher out there should know about, and that's our Loan Repayment Programs, and we're going to do a two‑part conversation.  Part one is today, where we're going to hear about an overview of what the program actually is, and we'll focus more about the application process in our second conversation. Today we have with us Dr. Ericka Boone.  She is the Director of The Division of Loan Repayment within the Office of Extramural Research, and she will be telling us everything we need to know about LRPs.  And with that, welcome you, Ericka, to the program.

 

>> Boone: Thank you for allowing me to be here.

 

>> Kosub: Sure.  So let's just jump right in.  Can you just briefly tell us what are the Loan Repayment Programs?

 

>> Boone:  Absolutely.  So the NIH Loan Repayment Programs really do represent a vital component of our Nation's efforts to help keep health professionals actively engaged in their research careers.  Basically how it works is this:  If a researcher can commit to performing research for at least two years in areas that NIH considers to be absolutely mission critical, then we can commit to repaying up to $50,000 per year of their qualified educational debt as well as covering resulting federal taxes for that. We're hoping that this outcome will be to increase our nation's stock in biomedical research scientists that are conducting research in the areas that are important to sustaining the health and well‑being, not just for individuals within this Nation, but across the world.

 

>> Kosub: And you threw out a buzz word there of qualified educational debt.  Can you tell me what does that mean?

 

>> Boone: I can tell you what it's not.  It is not ‑‑

 

>> Kosub:  [ Chuckling ]

 

>> Boone: ‑‑ credit card bills.  It is not that fancy new car that you want to drive.  Really, it is loans that result from an individual obtaining their education and training or pursuing their education and training.

 

>> Kosub: And jumping back to your first answer as well, you mentioned that this research that we support is within like the mission critical areas of NIH, and so can you say more about what kind of programs that actually means?

 

>> Boone: Sure.  Absolutely.  We currently now have six LRP subcategories, so I'll name each one of them for you and go back and give you a very brief description of each one of them, so we have the Clinical Research LRP, Pediatric Research LRP, Health Disparities Research LRP, Contraception and Infertility Research LRP, Clinical Research for Individuals from Disadvantaged Backgrounds LRP, as well as the Research on Emerging Areas Critical to Human Health or REACH, and that's our newest LRP. So let's start with the Clinical Research LRP subcategory, and this is for individuals whose research is more patient‑oriented.  So it has to be either conducted with human subjects or the individual must have some sort of materials of human origin, so that not only includes cognitive phenomenon, so survey research could be eligible. It also includes an individual who has materials such as saliva, bone, blood, brain, or whatever it might be, but it has to be from a human origin.  It doesn't have to be clinical trials research, though.  Many times people kind of get that confused. Next is Pediatric Research LRP.  And this one is for individuals whose research is related to the investigation of diseases or disorders that impact individuals that are age 18 and under.  The great thing about the Pediatric Research LRP is that basic research is allowed because the use of animal models might be more appropriate to model whatever that disease or disorder is. Next is Health Disparities Research LRP.  So this is for investigators whose research focuses on minority and other health disparity populations.  There is a myriad of the types of research that are eligible regarding the Health Disparities Research LRP, and the great thing about this particular program is that in previous years, only one institute at NIH, and that's the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities, was reviewing and supporting, or rather funding applications that came in for the LRPs under the HD category. This resulted in a lot of applications going unfunded every year, because the health disparities research LRP is our third most popular program, so it would not be uncommon for three or 400 applications to come in, but that one I see would only be able to fund less than a hundred, so it's a lot of applications that are going unfunded, that's a lot of researchers that are not supported.  That's a lot of dreams that are going deferred, right? So we have expanded the opportunity for other NIH institutions and centers to also be able to fund worthy Health Disparities Research LRPs, and we've almost doubled our success rates, so ‑‑ for funding, so we're really happy and proud about that, and we're hoping that participation within this particular research LRP will absolutely grow. So next is Contraception and Infertility Research.  This is for investigators whose research focuses on conditions that impact a person's ability to be able to conceive or bear children, as well as providing new or improved methods for preventing pregnancy. Next is clinical research for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, and this one is the same as the Clinical Research LRP; however, it's available to clinical researchers from verifiably financially disadvantaged backgrounds, so we're not talking about patient populations; we're talking about the investigators themselves. So for example, if an individual was able to apply for some sort of need‑based scholarship in college, or were eligible for Pell Grants, they may be eligible to apply for this program. The last subcategory is Research on Emerging Areas Critical to Human Health or REACH.  This program is beginning September 2021, and we're really excited about this, because while we feel like the other subcategories for LRPs were quite expansive, it left certain emerging and gap areas out of contention or investigators out of contention. So the whole purpose of this particular LRP is to help NIH recruit and retain researchers that are pursuing major opportunities or gap areas in emerging areas critical to human health. The institutes and centers will themselves be able to define what their emerging and gap areas are; however, for the most part, it's an opportunity for NIH to fund researchers that are conducting research in really critical areas that aren't eligible under the other LRP subcategories.  We're really excited about this launch.

 

>> Kosub:  Very cool.  It definitely sounds like there's a lot of great opportunities for various type of research to be supported and love to hear the success rates going up on those programs, and kind of begs the question of who is eligible to apply for these programs?  Do you have to have a doctorate, all that kind of stuff.

 

>> Boone: Right.  So there are several eligibility criteria, and I'll describe those very briefly.  So the first one in general is that you must have a doctoral level degree.  There are some exceptions, for example, for the Contraception and Infertility Research LRP. The next one is citizenship.  An individual must be a US citizen or permanent resident.  During the entirety of their LRP, they must be able to perform research for at least 20 hours per week for every quarter.  So we make payments on a quarterly basis.  So an individual must be conducting research for at least 20 hours per week for every quarter that they're supported under the LRP.  No negotiations, ladies and gentlemen. Next is Educational Loan Debt.  So an individual's Educational Loan Debt must represent at least 20% of the applicant's annual base salary.  This does not include your spouse's salary.  It also doesn't include if you're moonlighting, teaching extra classes, or if you're taking on extra shifts at the hospital; it's just your annual base salary. And lastly is research funding and salary support.  Your research salary and your funding support must come from a domestic nonprofit source.  An individual does not have to have an NIH award in order to be considered eligible for applying for an LRP; however, your research support and your salary must come from a domestic nonprofit source.  So if you have salary or if you're receiving research funding from a for‑profit entity, you're not eligible to participate in the NIH LRPs.

 

>> Kosub: All right.  Great.  Earlier you had mentioned there was a time commitment of like two years.  What happens if someone doesn't meet that two years?

 

>> Boone: I'm glad that you mentioned that.  Now, the two‑year research timeframe is put into place to really be helpful for the investigator, because any shorter time, especially for a new LRP, really doesn't give an investigator real time to make progress within his research project.  So the two‑year time frame was put into place at least for the first award. If an individual is not able to successfully complete two years at the same institution, and they're going to transfer to a new one, they can apply for a change of institution, and if the individual is still conducting qualifying research under the category in which they were funded for an LRP, then they would be able to transfer it to another institution. However, sometimes life happens.  So there is some flexibility there, but they would have to submit documentation on their need and desire to have to end their LRP early.

 

>> Kosub: I see.  I see.  And so thanks for all this.  So outside of qualified educational debt being repaid, which obviously is an amazing feature of the LRPs, do they provide any other benefits as someone who gets one?

 

>> Boone: Oh, absolutely.  As a matter of fact, we conducted analysis of the LRPs several years ago, and just overall, really quickly what I would like to talk about is that we all know that there are immense benefits to receiving the LRP, and one of them being relief from the debt burden of having to pay back student loans at a time where an investigator's at a really vulnerable career decision point.  They're at their early stages of their career and they're wondering, do I stay in a career that I love or do I exit out of this career pathway in order to pursue other opportunities that might be more lucrative? And I really love this program, because it really helps to keep people actively engaged.  And as I said before, we conducted an analysis to see, is this actually true, it's just something that we're making up and we're not.  So what we did is that we looked at individuals who applied for an LRP, received an LRP, and those who apply for an LRP and did not receive an LRP, and we followed them for about fifteen years out, and what we saw, that there is an immediate difference in what we called persistence in research for individuals who successfully were able to obtain an LRP versus those who did not. And this difference in productivity over time lasted from the time that the person received the LRP all the way out to about 14, 15 years into their career.  So not only are you receiving relief from debt burden or educational debt burden.  You're also getting this added boost to career preparedness, and demonstration of increased productivity across time.  I really think that it's linked to that protected research time that a person must have  or their institution must guarantee at the time they're applying for their LRP, because it gives the investigator time to really focus on the practice and the conduct of their research.

 

>> Kosub: Very cool.  Very cool.  Well, before we go, Ericka, I always like to give folks the opportunity for some closing thoughts.  Anything you would like to add, maybe like what happens if someone doesn't get an award or if someone doesn't apply?

 

>> Boone: So I think maybe we'll talk about some of the reasons for people don't receive an LRP before we leave.  So one of the most obvious reasons that a person's not successful in their LRP application is that they didn't contract a program officer prior to the application. Now, you might be able to read the notice, and get a general idea of the expectation for applying for the LRP, but this is the information that the other 2,000, 3,000 people were applying for the LRPs receive also.  You need what I call secret sauce, and the only people who are able to provide that for you is a program officer, because they can give you a really clear understanding of their institution and centers mission and priorities, and how you might be able to utilize that in ‑‑ really in submitting the most well‑crafted targeted application that you can, right? So the next thing is rush preparation.  We've all reviewed grant applications before, and when we see there's a lot of careless mistakes within the application, certain sections aren't really well‑thought‑out, it kind of dampens your enthusiasm, so don't give a reviewer any kind of inkling that, oh, this application isn't quite as good as the others, my enthusiasm is really not here, I'm just going to kind of put this one down and come back a little bit later.  We don't ever want that to happen, right? So give yourself some time to prepare a well‑crafted application. We really need for individuals to really in detail describe their mentoring and training plan.  So what are the elements that you are describing to reviewers that you're putting into place to alert them that you kind of really know what the real elements are, what the important elements are for you to build your research career and to launch into research independence. So here you're going to kind of talk about how your research training and background really kind of put you in position for where you are right now, but also to launch you into research independence. And you're also going to want to kind of really lay out elements of your mentoring and training plan, so what are the things that you need, or what are the areas that you are working on? Are there some gap areas that you need to fill for you to launch from where you are into research independence? Talk about that in that mentoring and training plan.  Also lukewarm letters of recommendation are the absolute kiss of death.  Your recommenders really are individuals who are kind of speaking for you in your absence.  They should be really enthusiastic about supporting your application, and if, one, your application ‑‑ let's just say David Kosub, you were applying for an LRP, and they have David Kosub in one section and Ericka Boone in another, that means that that letter was not crafted for you. Also, if there are only a few lines about you and basically all it said was that David brought cookies to lab meetings on Fridays and he's a really nice guy, you're never going to get that award.  So you want to make sure that you give your individuals that are writing letters of recommendation for you some really targeted information that you would like for them to focus on.  So let's just say, Dr. Boone, I would love for you to submit a letter of recommendation for me for the NIH LRPs.  Here is my biosketch and here's some areas that I love for you to focus on if you're willing.  I know that we're working together on specific aims one of my project.  If you could really focus on that when you're ‑‑ as you're writing your letter of recommendation for me, that would really help to target this letter of recommendation, and it would really help for reviewer to see your support as well as how I'm going to be growing in this area and how you're going to be helping me.  Also getting an indication of institutional support is really important as well. So the last most common reason that folks do not receive an LRP is not applying.  I can't tell you over and over how many people that I've run into that have said I've heard about the NIH LRPs, and I've been thinking about applying and I just never did, so when you ask them, really, truly kind of gets down into fear, I've had people to tell me that. Some say why didn't you apply? Well, really what it comes down to is I was scared.  I didn't want to apply and I didn't want to get it because I didn't want my institution to think that really I kind of don't fit here, I kind of don't belong or in over my head. And really those are impostor fears that are creeping into your brain and having a direct impact on your career, so you're gonna' kind of want to examine that, right? So don't let impostor fears, don't let impostor thoughts keep you from career growth.  Don't let it keep you from the benefits of the LRP.  Don't let it keep you from really participating in first person out loud in your own life.

 

>> Kosub: Very cool.  Very cool.  Great advice.  And definitely want to thank you, Ericka, for this opportunity to hear more about the overview of the loan repayment programs.  In our second conversation we'll get more into that application that Ericka was touching on, and so we hope you join us for that conversation. And for those interested, you can definitely check out the NIH's loan repayment program website.  There's a wealth of information that we talked about here today and much, much more.  We encourage you to ask questions, send e‑mails to LRP@NIH.gov or follow us on Twitter at #NIH_LRP.  This has been David Kosub with NIH's all about grants.  Thank you.

 

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