Saturday, March 2, 2013

Pros and cons of new K99/R00 regulations

Lat month the NIH announced some changes to the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award guidelines (NOT-OD-13-034), as a results of recommendations of the Biomedical Workforce Task Force. A major change is the lowering of the deadline for application from 5 years from obtaining your PhD to 4 years, which has been very upsetting to many. The Task Force was composed of several deans, department chairs and university presidents (roster) and their goal was to "develop a model for a sustainable and diverse U.S. biomedical research workforce that can inform decisions about training the optimal number of people for the appropriate types of positions".  A recent blog post from Sally Rockey, the NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Funding, also a member of the Task Force, discusses the impetus behind the deadline reduction: the goal is to emphasize mentoring, promote earlier exit from the postdoc and it is supposed to be accompanied by an increase in the number of awards to achieve a 30% success rate (here). The problem is how this is going to be implemented.

As I was applying for my K99 3 years ago, I chatted with people who had served on study sections and heard that there was widespread confusion on how to judge these awards. In going through an initial submission and resubmission and discussing with other awardees, it was clear that you pretty much had to be able to go on the job market right away. You had to provide a plan for your job search and your overall goals for your lab and you had to assemble a Job Search Advisory Committee. There was still substantial emphasis on mentoring, since you had to justify why you needed 2 more years of training, but the idea is that now mentoring will be even more important. But considering that an application with a resubmission takes one year, the timing becomes critical. You basically have to figure out what you want to write in your application during the 2nd year if your postdoc, apply at the beginning of your 3rd year and if necessary resubmit 6 months later. This is a tall order since most people do not have a well defined project until later in their postdoc and do not necessarily have a project that they can take with them. If you change fields and do a postdoc on a different topic from your PhD you may still be learning in year 2. If you are making a mouse line, you'll be at the beginning of characterization with no clear idea of what to write about. So you are left with abandoning the idea of a resubmission and just putting all your eggs in one basket applying only once. In addition, there is the issue of penalizing fellows who decide to take on a high risk project and develop new techniques, who may be troubleshooting for a few years before a big break.

I personally thought that the K99 was timed perfectly, kicking in when the early fellowships were ending and providing a cushion for the last 1-2 years of postdoctoral work. I had several friends who were blindsided by the 5 year deadline and could not make it on time despite having very exciting projects in development. I was able to take an additional year after securing my position to finish up a paper and I have been able to use the money for some really cool and pretty expensive experiments which will build the basis of the first couple of years in my own lab. It has been a huge blessing and I am a little scared for the transition to the new guidelines. I am trying to make sure all the younger postdocs know that they have to start thinking about this right away...it is just very hard when the first year is often spent reading and starting and stopping multiple possible projects.

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