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More Information On The K99/R00 Awards

As I’ve blogged about before, in response to the recommendations of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) working group that studied the biomedical research workforce, we are implementing changes to the NIH Pathway to Independence (K99/R00) awards. As described in these NIH Guide Notices, NIH leadership decided to shorten the eligibility period from 5 years to 4 years, and to increase the number of these awards, aiming for a 30% overall NIH success rate – that’s assuming the availability of sufficient funds and meritorious applications (for reference, last fiscal year (FY2012) the success rate was 23.3%. Keep in mind that this is the aggregate NIH success rate and that individual IC success rates vary). These changes will be implemented for applications due February 12, 2014 and beyond.

I’m aware that some of you have questions about how we arrived at these changes, so I wanted to provide some additional information to put these changes in context.

As described in the working group report, the changes to the K99/R00 program are intended to help more PhD graduates shift into permanent tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions more rapidly. Since the first K99 awards were made in fiscal year 2007, the median time from degree to the K99 application for applicants holding the PhD has always been generally 4 years. (It’s important to keep in mind here that the time-to-degree measure is not relevant for MDs and other clinicians, as their eligibility is determined by the number of years of postdoctoral research training experience, and excludes their postdoctoral clinical training years.) Additional data shows that since fiscal year 2008, between 60 and 70% of K99 awards went to initial applications, or in other words, applications in the A0 stage. An estimated 35% of the unfunded A0 applications were re-submitted as an A1.

You can see the data behind these summaries here.

As also described in the guide notices, we’re making changes on our side too. We recognize that, for K99/R00 applications submitted earlier in the post-doc training period, reviewers need to reset their expectations of applicants’ preliminary data and publications. Our scientific review officers will be providing guidance to peer reviewers, helping them to keep the new framework in mind, and encouraging them to appropriately assess the research plan given the eligibility guidelines.

I encourage you to review the latest guide notices, review our resources for applicants (like the our research training pages and K99 FAQ page), and reach out to your advisor, department chair, and NIH program staff as you or your colleagues consider applying for a K99/R00 award.

30 thoughts on “More Information On The K99/R00 Awards

  1. The comment that “the changes to the K99/R00 program are intended to help more PhD graduates shift into permanent tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions more rapidly” strikes me as fairly disingenuous. Isn’t a better way to help more PhD graduates shift into permanent tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions more rapidly simply to increase the funding duration? That is in fact the opposite of what the NIH just did.

  2. I’m curious what percentage of K99/R00 awardees have been unable to transition from the K-phase to the R-phase because they were unable to secure a tenure track position. Are those data available somewhere?

    • Thanks for this question, I was wondering the same thing myself. It would seem that while increasing the number of K awards would serve to help transition more postdocs into faculty positions, this can only occur if the actual number of faculty positions increases relative to the number of increased K awards. I certainly have heard of postdocs who have obtained K awards and were unable to find a faculty position under the current climate, wonder what it will be like once the number of awards is increased. My fear, is that universities will take advantage of this situation, offering temporary (non-tenure track) independent research positions to those with K awards and giving out only a small start up package. This would entail a very low risk situation for universities while perhaps only delaying the inevitable for the large majority of this wave of researchers who ultimately will not be able to secure R01 grants and will have to leave academia. NIH should put in place some safeguards to ensure this does not happen. NIH could require that the R00 level of funding will only be available for tenure-track positions. Also NIH should work with the extramural community to understand how many anticipated faculty positions will be available in the next few years then making sure that the number of K awards given out is on par with these numbers. The result of these two safeguards would most likely mean that success rates for K awards would actually decrease. However, the decreased K award success rate, in addition to the proposed career outcomes reporting of postdocs that was discussed in the biomedical workforce report, might actually provide the stimulus for the biomedical community as a whole to make significant changes to the structure of the workfoce, ie the glut of postdocs and grad students who will never be able to climb the career ladder into a principle investigator position.

      • “NIH could require that the R00 level of funding will only be available for tenure-track positions.”

        From http://grants.nih.gov/grants/new_investigators/QsandAs.htm, “In order to activate the extramural independent scientist R00 phase, individuals must have been offered and accepted a tenure-track, full-time assistant professor position (or equivalent) …”

        So NIH has already handled at least this part of your concern.

    • NIH does not routinely gather aggregate data on the reasons why K99 awardees do not transition to the R00. Each award is monitored on a case-by-case basis. However, examples of reasons reported include: accepting a faculty appointment outside of the United States, accepting a position in industry, and joining the NIH intramural program.

      • I’ve definitely heard of at least 2 K99 holders who secured an in-US tenure track job be denied their R00 phase. Care to comment?

        • While each award is monitored on a case-by-case basis, as described in our blog policies we wouldn’t discuss a specific individual – or details on their grants – in the blog comments!

    • I think that you could scrape that together with Reporter if you were so inclined. Pick an institute, export the K99′s for some year. Then do the same with R00′s for the next couple of years. Then just match up the names. When I have a few I’ll poke around.

      • Quick back of the envelope calculation 21 of 24 K99ers I examined ended up with an R00. That’s just for NIMH for one year’s batch (2010).

  3. “for K99/R00 applications submitted earlier in the post-doc training period, reviewers need to reset their expectations of applicants’ preliminary data and publications.”

    This is greatly appreciated, please ensure these changes have some teeth. Now for a minor criticism, since 2007 the median time from degree to award is 4 years? I suppose that’s not too terrible. However, I question the number of postdocs who can hold a single postdoc position for 4 years. In other words, I suspect there are few postdocs (myself included) who can begin a postdoc, write a K99, and stay in the same postdoc for 4 years until their K99 is funded. Most postdocs have year-by-year support, most lasting 2 years at best.

    If the people who are receiving these K99s are the best and brightest, 4 years seems not too rapid of a transition period. If I had had the money, I would have spent my 4 years of postdoc getting an MD instead.

    • Well, good luck getting reviewers to “reset” their expectations for preliminary data/research plan development. I chaired a K99/R00 review meeting recently and I will tell you that no one was willing to listen to that argument. The response I got was “if the research plan is not as well developed with preliminary data as an RO1 then that is an issue with the strength of the mentoring”. I guess in the end that just means that the scores being funded will be higher numbers than an R01, but still….. It is also not like one is going to “educate” the reviewers on this issue. Due to their relatively small numbers, these are reviewed by ad hoc study sections that will constantly have the majority (if not all members like the one that I chaired) who have never reviewed these before but have reviewed RO1s.

  4. K99/11 awards seem disproportionately earned by postdocs at medical schools. How does NIH prevent a further shift of funding away from purely PhD granting institutions to medical schools?

  5. While it is not a guideline for applying for the K99/R00, the buzz around the postdocs I interact with strongly suggests that unless you have a paper, your chances of receiving the K99/R00 award are virtually nil. I was even deterred from applying by my institutional grant officer because of this persistent rumor. I applied anyways but was disqualified from review on a semantic technicality (whole other issue with the K99/R00). Since this award is suppose to fuel postdocs early in their career rather than enable those already with published paper in hand, I suggest that another requirement is that the applicant must NOT have a paper from their postdoc at the time of applying. This would encourage those who have had success as a graduate student, and those that have interesting preliminary results in their postdoc to apply. To me, this seems more consistent with the ideals behind the K99/R00

  6. I planned to apply for a K99 in October. This change is frustrating, because it means that I will not get a chance for a re-submission (if I need to), since I will be > 4 years by the next submission cycle in 2014. I have been told that there is no grandfathering exception for someone like me for a re-submission. This change seems perfectly timed in order to lower my overall chances of getting funded by denying me the option to re-submit.

  7. The overall goal of the NIH trying to shorten the length of time I spend as a post-doc merely by tinkering with funding is also frustrating. Publishing now takes longer than it used it. Compare the number of panels in a manuscript today to a manuscript published 20 years ago. More work is required to publish a paper. This change from 5 to 4 years will not make my mice breed any faster. Post-docs taking longer and longer is indeed a problem, but this effort by the NIH to alter that seems misguided.

  8. I doubt this will be helpful. Postdocs will have to decide between writing F awards or the K99 almost as soon as they get a position. To me, it would make more sense to limit K99s to postdocs between 3-6 years, particularly in this difficult job search environment. Industry typically soaks up the 60-70% of postdocs who aren’t interested in an academic career. With the current economic downturn, industry positions are difficult to secure making academia a more attractive option for many postdocs. As a result, there are more postdocs chasing fewer jobs. I don’t know what the solution is, but I am rather frustrated with the process.

  9. Were the K99/R00 awards also sequestered with the rest of the NIH grants? Will one expect 10% less funds this fiscal year for the K99 and the R00 portion of the award?

  10. I think the concerns about feeding a glut of postdocs might be a little unfounded. I tried to work through the numbers a little bit. Firstly, the statement that “Additional data shows that since fiscal year 2008, between 60 and 70% of K99 awards went to initial applications, or in other words, applications in the A0 stage” seems a little misleading, since according to the spreadsheet new applications outnumbered resubmissions by 3.45-to-1 in 2012. What seems more important to me is the success rate of applications at each stage, which according to those data is 16.8% for new applications and 34.5% for resubmissions (again, just focusing on the most recent year). So, about 83% of new applicants are going to have to try again. Since 50% of applications are made after the proposed 4-year deadline (according to the article… and I imagine a large chunk of the applications under 4-years are new submissions, so that most of the resubmissions –which are what are actually funded– are made after the 4-year mark), that means, ceteris paribus, that 42% of new applicants will be SOL. With 68% fewer resubmissions (which are the ones that really get funded anyway), the NIH should have no problem meeting its goal of 30% success rate while keeping the actual number of awards the same or even fewer. As it stands, if more applications wouldn’t be submitted prior to 4 years, the success rate would be around 43% assuming the same number of awards were granted. Now, I’m sure many postdocs will try to step up their game to get some sort of application together by the deadline (how “meritorious” those will be given the rush is another question), but will they be able to make up the lost ground? It seems plausible that this move is more like a shell game that makes it look like the NIH is investing more in career development, but without really changing anything (except maybe the quality of the applications). I could be wrong, though; I will be very interested to see how the actual dollar amounts/number of awards change when this policy is implemented.

  11. The only way to help postdocs transition faster into faculty positions is to increase the number of faculty positions. Without significant improvements in R01 funding rates, no changes to the K99 program (which is tiny relative to the number of postdocs) will have any effect on the typical postdoc experience. And I say this as a happy K99 recipient.

  12. This will not lengthen the K phase. K99/R00s are golden tickets to multiple tenure track short lists for blindingly obvious reasons. Postdocs are already too long; this just means everyone with a K99 goes on the job market earlier and biases awards to fields with shorter publishing cycles.

  13. I would echo the comments by other investigators above. This K99-R00 mechanism is a noble and appreciated endeavor. However, the NIH needs to put pressure on Universities to stop eating their young, or else there will be a larger pool of early career investigators 5 years from now who will not be competitive for an RO1. Startup packages have essentially dried up at a time when research funding has also decreased significantly. Young investigators cannot be expected to compete with experienced scientists who have an army of postdocs when younger scientists are lucky if they can hire one technician and one postdoc.

  14. Why do NIH young investigator funding mechanisms focus on getting postdocs into faculty positions faster at the expense of getting THE BEST postdocs into faculty positions? As I’ve said before, the time limits on who can apply work against women (and also men) who have family responsibilities, or whose careers have been slowed down for whatever reasons. There is an implicit (and I think incorrect) assumption that people whose careers progress quickly are the most competent. Many good young researchers progress slowly due to lack of (or poor) mentorship, perfectionism that they need to learn to temper, family responsibilities, etc. These people are being excluded from many opportunities by these time limits, they often end up leaving science, and the workforce as a result is losing some of the most promising young people. The people the system selects for are very strongly mentored and probably politically acute, but not necessarily creative or independent thinkers. In my opinion, the time limits placed on young investigators to qualify for NIH grants are a very bad idea.

    • I was allowed to resubmit my K99 application a few months past the 5 year deadline (this was 4 years ago) to account for maternity leave taken during my postdoc.

  15. I’m a late stage graduate student transitioning to a post-doc this fall and am hoping to run an independent research program in academia one day. The K99/R00 mechanism is a pivotal piece of my plan, but the shortened eligibility period does put a lot of pressure on me to hit the ground running in my new lab. I am defending in August and, at one point, I was considering staying in my graduate thesis lab for a few months as a temporary post-doc to complete a very nice story. The other alternative would have been to draw out my graduate studies longer to bring it to publication. I bring this up because I think the K99/00 is being considered within the post-doc vacuum despite the fact that the mechanism is commonplace enough for savvy graduate students who are academically inclined to strategize for. Unintended consequences of shortening the eligibility period may be 1) Graduate work goes unfinished and unpublished and 2) Graduate students take longer to schedule defenses to maximize their future eligibility period. Lengthening the graduate period, yet shortening the post-doc period to independence will not achieve what the working group is hoping for. I agree that many of the objectives of the working group are admirable and that the goal of shortening time to independence is one we should strive for, but not at the expense of bad science or the prolonging the Ph.D phase

  16. I wonder what the rate of growth is in number of new PhDs seeking academic jobs vs the number of new universities in the U.S.? We are graduating more and more people with advanced degrees who want to teach/do research at a university and yet since being in CA (7 years now), I have only heard of one new university that has opened its doors. (yet I hear many new universities are opening in India and China!) -Jenny B

  17. I started my post-doctoral training as Fogarty ICHORTA fellow on December 11, 2009. On December 12, 2013 I’ll complete 4 years of post-doc. With new rule I’ll miss the opportunity by few months. I am on J1 visa and this grant is only option for me. I waited for past 3 years to get few more first author publications and I was thinking of applying next year. The notice period for new rule should have been at-least two years. Now till I get permanent residence I’ll not have any opportunity to write K award. That is really bad for my career.

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