NIH’s Pathway to Independence Award Aims Younger

Last year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director commissioned a working group to make recommendations on how NIH could better prepare young biomedical scientists for the realities of the modern workforce. Among the working group’s recommendations was one to shorten the time that scientists spend in low-paying postdoctoral positions, and another to increase the number of awards NIH provides to help postdocs transition into independent research positions.

In February, NIH issued a notice announcing two major changes to the agency’s Pathway to Independence Award for postdocs, known as the K99/R00 or “kangaroo” award, designed to satisfy the working group’s recommendations. (K99 awards support postdocs with an annual stipend of up to $75,000 and $25,000 annually in research support for up to 2 years. If those postdocs are hired to a faculty post by a research institution, the award automatically morphs into a R00 research grant—in effect, a mini-R01 providing up to $249,000 per year for 3 more years.) The changes: NIH is shortening the eligibility period for applying for a K99 to 4 years after earning a Ph.D., down from 5 years, and aiming to bump up the success rate for applicants to 30%, from 23.3% in FY 2012.

[R]eviewers will have to alter their expectations to take into consideration the fact that candidates will, on average, have fewer publications, less preliminary data, and so on.

Those changes represent a shift in NIH’s priorities for the K99/R00. Now, the median K99 winner is 4 years past the Ph.D., says Sally Rockey, deputy director for extramural research, and 5th-year postdocs also do very well. With this change, the agency will eliminate those 5th-year postdocs from eligibility, encouraging even earlier transitions to research independence.

Science Careers talked to Rockey about the changes.

What’s the rationale?

Rockey says that most K99 recipients transition to the R00 stage within a year of winning the K99, regardless of the number of years since earning their degree. Hence, NIH reasoned, giving the awards to less-experienced postdocs should further accelerate their transition to independence. “We were finding oftentimes that when an individual was getting the K99 piece of the award, they were only staying a year in the postdoc, which showed us they were … at a point in their career where they were ready to transition anyway,” Rockey says.

Are 5th-year postdocs out of luck?

The new policy statement will go into effect in February 2014, with 12 March of that year being the first application deadline affected. Applicants who have between 4 and 5 years of postdoctoral experience by that date (who would have had an additional year of eligibility under the old guidelines) will be able to resubmit until 12 December 2013, effectively giving them a few extra months of eligibility past the 12 October 2013 deadline for everyone else.  “Those that are sort of caught right in the middle would still be eligible,” Rockey says. “We didn’t want to leave people high and dry.”

The working group report recommended doubling the number of K99/R00 awards. Why didn’t NIH implement this recommendation?

NIH doesn’t think that it receives enough high-quality applications to justify doubling the number of these awards. (Last year, 212 K99s were awarded, but most years average about 180.) “We realized that bumping up the numbers would be dependent on whether we got high-quality applications, and how many we would get,” Rockey says. “Maybe 300 grants would be way too many, given the applications. … There comes a point where there’s diminishing returns, where … you’ve funded all the high-quality applications. I wouldn’t say we’re there with the K99s, but we’re a lot closer than we are with the regular R01s.” Budget limitations also played a role in the decision, she says. NIH still expects to increase the number of awards, but by a smaller amount.

One effect of these changes is that reviewers will have to alter their expectations to take into consideration the fact that candidates will, on average, have fewer publications, less preliminary data, and so on. Rockey hopes that no one will be disenfranchised—that, instead, the people who in the past would have applied for and received a K99 in year 4 or 5 will now get it sooner. “We’re going to have to see what [shortened eligibility] does to the number of applications,” she says. “I don’t think lopping off the 5th year really does much to that. Those individuals can just apply earlier.” If the shortened eligibility period does result in a decline in the number of applications, then NIH will revisit the new policy, she says.

*This article originally reported that for the first year of this new policy, 5th-year postdocs would still be eligible. This is incorrect. Fifth-year postdocs will be able to resubmit their proposals until 12 December 2013.

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