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Progress on the Biomedical Workforce Initiatives: Upcoming Changes to the K99/R00 Awards and Pre-doctoral Fellowships

As I posted back in December, NIH is implementing many of the recommendations proposed by the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) working group that studied the biomedical research workforce. I’d like to draw your attention to several Notices that have been posted in the NIH Guide in the past few weeks, laying out some of the details and providing a bit of background on the ACD recommendations that preceded them.

The ACD working group stated that the NIH Pathway to Independence (K99/R00) awards provide a proven mechanism for postdoctoral researchers to achieve an independent research position, and they recommended that NIH double the number of awards. Also, the working group thought that given the long training period for biomedical researchers, NIH should shorten the eligibility period for applying to this program to hasten the transition to an independent position. (Currently, investigators with more than 5 years of postdoctoral research training experience at the time of initial application or subsequent resubmission(s) are not eligible for the award.)

NIH leadership considered this recommendation and decided to increase the number of these awards, aiming for a 30% success rate (assuming sufficient funds and meritorious applications), and to shorten the eligibility period from 5 years to 4 years.  We also thought it important to emphasize the mentored research training and career development phase of the award, and therefore expect that awardees will remain in their K99 position for no less than 12 months before transitioning. We understand that these changes may mean that the R00 research plan of applicants may be less-developed than in the past, and reviewers will be asked to adjust their expectations appropriately. These changes to the upcoming Parent K99/R00 funding announcement are described in more detail in the recent NIH Guide Notice.

Another recommendation of the ACD working group was that all NIH institutes and centers (ICs) should offer comparable programs for support of graduate student training. We are implementing this recommendation by extending the F30 (individual fellowships for predoctoral training which lead to a dual degree) and F31 predoctoral fellowship programs to most NIH ICs. This will be phased in over the next two years, with a number of ICs signing on now and others joining in the next fiscal year. Check the recent NIH Guide Notices to see the list of ICs now participating in the F30 and F31 funding opportunities.

We will be announcing additional ways we are implementing the ACD working group recommendations and will be following up with a request for information on some of the other initiatives. So stay tuned.

27 thoughts on “Progress on the Biomedical Workforce Initiatives: Upcoming Changes to the K99/R00 Awards and Pre-doctoral Fellowships

  1. What is the timeline for this doubling of the number of K99 awards. Will this be phased in over time or will there be some immediate change?

  2. Like communism, this is great “in theory”. The K99 mechanism itself is well designed to transition promising postdocs to faculty positions quickly, but in my experience and others I’ve talked to, this is not the current practice.
    Firstly, I submitted my K99 “early” after having been a postdoc for 1 year. The main reviewer complaint was that I hadn’t published enough. I do mouse work. It’s nearly impossible to design, perform, and analyse a mouse experiment, then sit through the 3-6 month publication waiting game all in less than a year. That’s the reviewers being unreasonable. Even the publications from my first “temp” postdoc were still in the process of being published. The NIH needs to enforce their own guidelines if we are to have any hope of getting a K99 all the way to funding before 5 years happens.
    Secondly, all the people I know who got K99s had to go through re-review. That adds another year right off the bat (including 6 months time to wait for the rejection, immediately resubmit, wait another 6 months).

    Here’s the REAL timeline for a K99.
    Year 1 do postdoc – start coming up with K99 ideas immediately.
    Year 2 do postdoc – hopefully have 2 data papers published (not “in press”).
    Submit K99 end of Year 2.
    Year 3 wait 6 months for rejection, rewrite, resubmit at end of Year 3.
    Year 4 wait 6 months for acceptance. Wait 3 more months to get the money.
    Year 5 Start your mandatory 1 year minimum. Start looking for faculty job.
    Year 6 Take a faculty in August because that’s as soon as you can start.

    Remember, that’s “fast”. Many postdocs don’t submit a K99 until Year 4 or 5 because they “need more preliminary data and publications” because that’s what the reviewers want. The truth is that anyone good enough to get a K99 is good enough to get a faculty job without it. If you wait until Year 4 (the new limit), you’re not getting out of postdoc until Year 7. How exactly is this an enticement? You say “shorten the time limit”, I say, tell it to the reviewers, and speed up reviewing and results.

    • I completely agree with all comments here.
      In my research area, it takes 3-4 years to make a mouse model, breed them with other transgenic mice, and then wait until they have age-depedent phenotypes (that show up only around 24 months of age).
      Everyone using a similar strategy would never get K99/R00 with this new change.
      Maybe I should have worked on cell biology T__T
      I’m so sorry for all Postdocs working hard to make innovative mouse models for aging study.

    • You may be underpaid, but you make a world of sense. One more point: this fast tracking approach encourages quick publication of half baked papers.

  3. Dear All,
    Is this 4 year postdoc training limit has already been implemented? I mean if some one is 4 year and 2 months in Jan?Feb 2014, Would he/she be eleigible for K99?

    Thanks

  4. The NIH continues to miss the point. None of these contortions will make the least bit of difference in the biomedical workforce. The entire Western training vehicle, the one that has driven the US to the forefront of biomedical research, is based on individual excellence. We don’t select toadies and minions and also-rans (or at least we try not to). Individuals selected based on excellence are looking to distinguish themselves. They are not looking to join some team led by an octogenarian and be third of twelve on the author list for the first 20 years of their career. They don’t want to grind out “big data” while the PI grinds out “big bucks”. They want to personally make a difference and personally be rewarded for it. A larger and larger percentage of the NIH budget is being diverted away from the pool that rewards individual achievement (the investigator-initiated R01) and thus a greater and greater number of emerging scientists are being turned off to the system. They don’t want a four year grant. They want a forty year career they can feel good about them. All this does is prolong the agony. When you create a vibrant, accessible source of research funds similar to our historical standards, the kids will come back to the system. Until then, you’re just squandering resources we don’t have.

  5. Shortening the eligibility timeline from 5 years to 4 years does not help postdocs who are outstanding but use approaches that take longer. It will only serve to select for the type of work that can be performed and published quickly. For example, postdocs who relie on genetically modified mice will be at a severe disadvantage. Also those whose mentors only publish well-developed stories will also be left out. NIH needs to get rid of the K99/K01 requirement of having publications by the time review or they should get rid of the time limit for eligibility. Should quality be the most important attribute of the work?

  6. I agree…good in theory. Who wouldn’t want to have a short, productive postdoc period and become independent at a younger age?! For people who work in cell lines or who happen to be lucky and hit on something that works quickly, this will be a benefit. But in reality, there are a lot of outstanding people who will now not be able to apply for these awards…especially people who are doing mouse work, or who have to develop a unique project from their mentor. In order to have a competitive body of published work by year three, you cannot develop any new mouse model…not enough time…or you better hope that your mice cooperate and give you the genotypes and numbers you need quickly (this does not happen to most people I know)! Also, where are you rushing these people out of their postdocs to? There are not enough faculty positions available right now with the terrible economy and funding levels.

  7. I am concerned about the impact of such time restrictions on scientists, particularly female, who choose the postdoc time period to start a family.

  8. I would delve into conspiracy theories and suggest that this looks like another attempt to divert the NIH funds from a generally accessible stream to a niche, which would preferentially feed a few “big labs”.
    We all know that regular funding mechanisms become more and more competitive. It is harder to get through the review process, and those who succeed in that get more scrutiny from their less fortunate colleagues. It became almost obscene to perpetuate a situation, when a particular PI on paper claims to be leading intellectually and administratively 5, 6, 7 or even 9 completely independent NIH-funded projects. It is nobody’s secret, that a lab like that has very strong postdocs, some of which perform the functions, which are typically associated with lab directorship: mentoring other lab members; fully preparing manuscripts, grant applications and progress reports; establishing and maintaining collaborations with other groups and individuals; providing strategic vision for the development of ongoing projects or the inception of the new ones. This frees up the esteemed nominal PI to “represent” the lab and schmooze at meetings and conferences; to perform high visibility appearances on behalf of various organization; to serve on various institutional and public committees, company boards, etc. The people who actually propel the labs are relatively expensive and often have sufficient credentials to look for, at least, some form of an independent position. Any financial shortfall for such a lab would make keeping such individuals more difficult and could persuade them to leave.
    So, how do you (1) remove the appearance of NIH’s favoritism towards some PIs, while (2) maintaining a steady stream of funds flowing smoothly towards their labs and (3) keeping the best minds and hands from leaving their groups? Easy! You solve (1) by making grants not to the lab directors, but to the members of their labs. The money flows into the same pot, but it is much less noticeable to the public, who might be searching the official data by the PI’s name. The older way of doing it (by giving lab members fake “independent”-style titles) now encounters some opposition in study sections, so you openly call these people “trainees”. You solve (2) by diverting the funds from openly-contested programs into the ones where only the representatives of big labs could win. Indeed, you may require a strong publication record in a short career time (which means that someone has a power to “push” the papers into the best journals), strong preliminary data (which is easier to harvest from 20 postdocs currently working in the lab), and strong mentor credentials (“the chicken and the egg” circle of running a big lab and producing notable papers and alumni). To make sure that none of your candidates ever strikes out, you even reduce the competition for those funds, so that a third of applications gets funded. And to make sure that people and the money under their name do not leave the big labs, you indenture these individuals for, at least, a couple of years. Say, they need “extra mentoring”. (3) is solved! Smart, isn’t it?
    As a bonus, you make it more likely that the new crop of professors are the alumni from select few labs: such job candidates not only have a high-esteem patron, but also the dowry to bring to the new institution. And, of course, these are the individuals who, in a few years from now, will be making granting, editorial and recruiting decisions. Hope, they will remember their old friends.

  9. This change will disproportionately impact women who want to have families. Time off pre and post birth will hamper their abilities to produce the same amount of preliminary data and in many cases, some women will ‘age out’ of eligibility.

    If this policy were in place when I applied (and was awarded) my K22, I would have been ineligable. Being awarded this K grant was instrumental in my obtaining a TT academic position.

    This is incredibly shortsighted from an organization that claims to have non-gender biased policies.

  10. I do hope you take into consideration the remarks of “underpaid postdoc” made above. They are quite accurate in my experience thus far and according to at least 5 other postdocs I have spoken with about their K99 / K22 experiences to date.

    I thought the remark “The truth is that anyone good enough to get a K99 is good enough to get a faculty job without it.” was especially apt when I look at several colleagues who have failed to get a K99 due to time / publication restraints then proceeded to get a terrific faculty job without one.

  11. The idea that one can mandate, in a top-down manner, how soon students can graduate, or how soon postdocs can get faculty positions, is the just sort of unrealistic, top-down mechanism most beloved of government bureaucracies. The fact is, however, that the average length of time (in my experience in running faculty searches) for biomedical postdoc training prior to finding a faculty position, is ~6.5 years. In other disciplines it is generally much shorter. Why the difference? – the competition for faculty positions in biomedical sciences is fierce (300 applicants/job is not uncommon); and getting papers into top journals is extremely competitive and often takes 1 – 2 years. Mandating shorter eligibility periods will do nothing to alter these realities. It will simply push the financial burden onto our RO1 grants – which in the current financial climate is the opposite of what one would desire.
    Frankly, I think the advisers and the NIH have it backwards. They should be providing fewer but longer fellowships in the biomedical sciences, both at the graduate and postdoctoral stages. This would provide the time for the best scientists to accomplish a significant body of work, which would stand them in good stead for their independent careers. We are already training too many students and postdocs, for too few academic positions and too few RO1 grants. These numbers are not going to suddenly change. Increasing the number of K99 awards will not increase quality. Shortening the eligibility period will not get postdocs into faculty positions faster. Wishing things were true doesn’t make them so, unfortunately.

  12. NIH is heading toward the wrong direction by shortening the eligibility years for K awards and sure sign of disconnected with the reality as pointed out above. In addition, this is really bad news and unfair for those who want balancing family and career and slowing down for a couple of years. This is particular important for women post-docs who also want a family. Not eligible for K awards after 4-years of post-doc takes away the opportunities for many choice about post-doc life. To be fair, the eligibility years for K awards should be open, for those who is ready in year-one of post-doc, go for it. For those who need take longer time, the opportunity should be there.

    • There has been no formal process like we have with early stage investigators (ESIs), but the result for K99 eligibility is similar. Program officials have looked at these on a case-by-case basis. Time off from research for family reasons has generally not counted towards the 5 (soon to be 4) years research experience past the PhD.

      • With all due respect, Rock Talk Blog Team, I think you’ve completely missed the point of “Past postdoc”‘s comments, as well as comments from others above. “Taking time off for family,” is NOT the same as taking the time to start and raise a family, something many try to do in their postdoc years. We are not talking about multi-month or multi-year leaves of absence from research (which, first, I would hope would not count against our postdoc time, but which, second, most family postdocs wouldn’t be able to afford in the first place!)

        No, we are talking about having a family life.

        Taking time to start a family means all-too-short maternity/paternity leave (and that’s if our institution even offers them!), it means keeping my postdoc job active AND my spouse keeping her job because it’s the only way to provide for our family, it means stopping experiments short because I need to go pick my son up from daycare on time, it means missing a day of work because he has a fever, it means taking a half day to take him to the pediatrician, it means taking a personal day because I can’t function in the lab due to the lack of sleep, it means taking a couple weeks time to be with my spouse when we lose a child…or two…trying to start a family, and above all, it means being there for my family *first*, and my postdoc career *second*.

        Now, if you are telling me that I can tally all of THAT “time off for my family” time up and have it not count against me, I’ve got another 2 years beyond now that I can apply for a K99! But I don’t think that is what you mean.

        This new “fast-tracked” time line will essentially bias success toward those postdocs who do not already have a family. It will force new postdocs to choose between starting a family or starting a career. It eliminates years of work by postdoctoral associations across the country fighting to make it possible for postdocs to have a real life outside the lab. And, I fervently believe, it will eventually eliminate the incentive to aspire to an academic career in biomedical research after postdoc, or even after graduate school.

  13. Will there be a formal commenting period before the proposed changes go into effect? While I am sure the proposed changes by the advisory committee are well intentioned, the solutions are misguided. For many of the reasons stated above and others, I implore the NIH to confer with postdocs “on the ground” so to speak. In my opinion, these changes will be detrimental to the majority of postdocs in the current workforce.

      • All comments listed in this website are about the following statement.
        “NIH leadership considered this recommendation and decided to …. to shorten the eligibility period from 5 years to 4 years.”
        I wonder why this critical information is left out at the following RFI website?
        http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-13-045.html
        In contrast, it did mention about graduate student’s time to graduate.
        “Encouraging timely completion of doctoral study by establishing expected limits on the length of time NIH will provide support for graduate students.”
        If RFI did mention 4 years of limit for K99, I’m sure that many postdocs will send their opinion in response to RFI.
        RFI should have included this most sensitive information.
        .

  14. I agree with “ConcernedPostdoc” above. There needs to be a pause on these proposed changes, because we desperately need a real, formal discussion with real, working post-docs about how these proposals are going to work in the real world. Post-docs should have a say in the funding systems that will affect their career path.

    Because, again, as good intentioned as they may be, the above changes will not achieve the desired outcome. They will not work. “underpaid postdoc” and “Around the block” make two of the best cases above as to why the changes won’t work . The timeline “underpaid postdoc” lays out is undoubtedly what WILL BE ENCOURAGED by these moves, and will be all but unrealistic for most postdocs. Not to mention what happens after getting the k99 in that timeline…there just aren’t the faculty jobs out there. And who wants to give that much responsibility to someone barely 4yrs experience out of graduate school (and who spent 2 years of that trying to get the K99 in the first place)? As that commentor said, this system will only favor those who would even be successful without the k99.

    And if the comments of the populace reading this article are any indication, I recommend the Rock Talk Blog Team take a good, hard look above. The response has been 100% negative, and all make good points about specifically WHY these changes are misguided.

    Yes, there needs to be change on our behalf. But don’t leave our point of view, or our voice, out of it!

  15. In the article above it states that the ADC “working group thought that given the long training period for biomedical researchers, NIH should shorten the eligibility period for applying to this [K99] program…”
    I’m sorry, but I do not see the logic in that. Am I the only one confused by this? Biomedical research takes time. Training to do biomedical research right and be a good independent scientist Takes Time. And some research, like mammalian genetics or model development, takes much longer than others.

    So how does shortening the amount of time allowed for training before getting a Independence Pathway grant improve the situation? All this will do is ensure that many, MANY good postdocs who are working on longer time-scale projects, and trying to do it right, will be ineligible for funding that would help the flourish and become independent.

    There is no logic in that.

  16. I agree that shortening the years of eligibility penalizes anyone who made sacrifices during grad school and expect to do so again during the tenure track race, but need to take time during the post doc years to have a family or get a divorce and fight for custody as in my case. I will no longer be eligible with the new rules.

    The number of years should not be limited, the quality of the work and future potential should.

    This is just another way women are discriminated against in science.

  17. 5 years is too short for many projects. What does vintage have to do with the intrinsic merit of a proposal?

    I recognize that this policy could be a selection for highly talented, highly motivated, highly productive biologists- in some cases I’m sure it will. An alternative interpretation is that this policy will encourage cynical biology rather than fundamentally important an interesting biology. There is no incentive to tackle challenging problems that might not pan out, or that might take a long time to troubleshoot, which leads to shortsighted, derivative work.

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