An independent appointment straight out of doctoral training? Really NIH?

October 6, 2010

crossposting from DM on Scientopia:
Wow. The NIH has issued RFA-RM-10-019 which sets out to bypass postdoctoral training and install lucky grantees as faculty straight out of the doctoral award.

This FOA issued by the National Institutes of Health, solicits applications for the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award (DP5) from institutions/organizations that propose to appoint and support exceptional, early career scientists directly following the completion of their Ph.D. (or equivalent) or M.D. (or equivalent) training into an independent academic research position, thereby omitting the traditional post-doctoral training period from their career path.

Sounds interesting. How about the details? My first concern is size and scope, given the bad NIH history with “starter” awards like the R29/FIRST award and study section cultures that expected an R21 before awarding a fundable R01 score.
This DP5 program is full modular R01 size- applicants can request up to $250,000 in direct costs per year for a full 5 years. Schweet! No worries on that score.
So who is eligible to be the PI?

At the time of application, the Early Independence PI must be within 12 months before or after the completion of their Ph.D. (or equivalent) or M.D. (or equivalent) training. By the end of the award period, the PI is expected to be competitive for continued funding of his/her research program and for a permanent research position.

Hmmm, “to be competitive…for a permanent research position”. That sounds a bit dodgy to me. In the part about the application being “required” to demonstrate things, the following are key.

Evidence that the Early Independence PI will be appointed into an independent research position…A detailed description of the laboratory space to be provided…career enhancement opportunities available to the Early Independence PI, equivalent to those offered to assistant professors…opportunities for the Early Independence PIs to apply for additional research funding without being required to do so.

Soooo. The University has to pony up a non-permanent position that does not have to be at the assistant professorial rank and they have to let the person apply for additional funding. They have to do the usual claim about making space available and that yes, this is an independent position, blah de blah. It’s okay. But c’mon. The NIH is planning on handing out what amounts to an R01 and couldn’t be bothered to hold the University to an Assistant Professor appointment? When they can just deny the person tenure if they don’t like them after the 5yr award interval?
Well, they only plan to hand out 10 of these this year and a local University can only submit two applications….get your requests in


25 Responses to “An independent appointment straight out of doctoral training? Really NIH?”

  1. SG Says:

    As Dr. Phil might say..”how is that (K99/R01s) working for you?” I wish NIH would make the schools put some Major skin in the game for these kind of awards. Maybe all indirect costs?


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    Everyone that I know about who has landed a job after an K99/R00 award has been appointed Assistant Professor. Are you aware that lesser-than appointments are being approved by Program for the R00 phase?


  3. Eric Lund Says:

    The NIH is planning on handing out what amounts to an R01 and couldn’t be bothered to hold the University to an Assistant Professor appointment?
    Welcome to my world. Apart from the requirement that the applicant be +/- 12 months from the Ph.D. and the limitation on submissions, this is rather like applying for small grants from NASA: you don’t have to be faculty to apply (unless your institution imposes that requirement; mine doesn’t), and you don’t have to be appointed to a faculty position if you get one. Although $250k per year is an “only in my dreams” budget–realistic numbers on NASA grants are more like $80-100k annually, though I have seen proposals for higher amounts.


  4. DrugMonkey Says:

    To be clear, EL, technically one doesn’t have to have a faculty appointment at a University to get NIH funding. Technically the University is the applicant and anyone they want to put as the PI can be the PI.
    Now, there *are* pressures. First at the study section level where the type of appointment really matters to reviewers. Second, career engineering efforts that NIH tiptoes around now and again. I like those but what I complain about is that they are too timid.
    My position is that by entering the career-engineering arena, they have already passed the critical barrier. After that, all they should be interested in is whether they are successful at reaching their goals. This may require using *every* bit of power they have to accomplish those goals, but so what?
    Trying to split hairs and pretend like they aren’t telling Universities what to do is their preferred path, however. pfah!


  5. whimple Says:

    I totally agree. The NIH should dictate their terms to the Universities decisively. With the NIH holding essentially all the cards (cash) the Universities are in no position to bargain. The NIH just has to figure out what it actually wants… and then implement it… (so in reality the Universities are pretty safe to go with business as usual). The only real power the Universities have is to withdraw study section service, but I’m not sure doing away with study sections would actually hurt NIH-funded research, any anyhow the NIH could simply say we’ll decline funding your “non-competitive” renewal if you don’t serve. 🙂


  6. kinsley Says:

    I totally agree wimple


  7. Sudhansu K. Dey Says:

    Why launch another program, when NIH cannot fund even outstanding RO1 research grants? Brilliant young minds may not be enough to be creative,learning to be disciplined and organized is a vital component to be creative and to sustain a productive program. Postdoctoral training provides these qualities. Without these qualities, these young and bright minds may not be able to lead the next generation of creative minds. It is time for Dr. Collins to critically review each NIH program and gather momentum to fund more RO1 grants.


  8. DrugMonkey Says:

    Postdoctoral training may or may not be required for the qualities you revere. Those qualities likewise may or may not be necessary for a productive program or other NIH health science goal.
    The point of this program is that it will *test* the hypothesis. Or at least it will pilot it so that a better test might be formed.
    I really don’t understand why anyone would oppose this. 10 full-modular grants is a drop in the NIH bucket and yet the impact on career issues is HUGE.


  9. gerty-z Says:

    I think that this sounds great, in theory. I worry about the young folks that get this grant, though. Sure, it would be super to have an R01-level grant starting out. But I seriously doubt that many of these grantees will end up in an Assistant Professor position. Instead, I suspect that they will be placed in a non-tt “research assistant prof” position that complies with the guidelines. Then they will go out and get a tt job like all the other postdocs. But they won’t get the new investigator bonus when they are trying to get an R01, which may make it harder to get tenure in the long run. Now, maybe the n00b status isn’t a big deal, but I am consistently told otherwise by my mentors (as an Asst. Prof). I just wonder if these young investigators wouldn’t be better off in the K99/R00 program, which does require a tt appointment and doesn’t take away your new investigator status. In reference to our twitter exchange, I think it is disingenuous to say that most folks would jump at an independent position after 2-3 postdocs. That is no doubt true, but this program is aimed at a different group entirely, it seems to me.
    Finally, it seems to me that there are ALREADY programs that accomplish this w/o the potential ding later on. I know of several institutions that have “super postdoc” positions that enable young folks to have their own, albeit temporary, gig. I wonder if the NIH providing more support to these sort of programs might not be a better use of the $.


  10. Dveduu Says:

    Poor post-docs.. not only are they overworked, underpaid, overeducated, and have horrible job options, now they’re getting upstaged by hotshot grad students.


  11. ex-hedgehog freak Says:

    Well, this is the way it worked 40 years ago. I can give the NIH some chops for wanting to see if it can work that way still. Look at all the arguments for those Nobel Laureates who did their best work in their 30s back in the day.
    Look at it this way, we’ll know if it works or not pretty quickly. We’ll have the data to be able to make the judgement call as to whether a postdoc position is necessary in making tt candidates these days more suitable and ready to take on the responsibility of those positions. Although I would add that in today’s grad programs, it will put a lot more emphasis on how the students are trained. Grants management will have to become an integral part of grad programs if any schools and/or mentors are hoping to get their students to grab one of these.
    Did I read this announcement right? Is only one institute handing these out right now? Are all you grad students suddenly going to develop an interest in craniofacial work?


  12. felgi Says:

    People let’s remember about different people in countries like this. Let’s stop the war!


  13. jojo Says:

    Uhh… I’m not sure if I understand correctly. So, let’s say (like me) you’re a grad student who is 12 mo or less from graduating. How do you apply for this grant? Does my current (PhD-granting) university have to apply for me? And in that case, is my current university awarded the grant, which means I have to stick around here for the next 5 years? What if I’m interested in taking the grant with me somewhere else – I would suspect there are plenty of universities out there that would outright offer a job to me after getting a grant like this. Is that possible, or does the money stick with the Univ?
    Anyway I’m certainly not applying. Just don’t understand how it’s intended to work?


  14. LadyDay Says:

    Essentially, this does absolutely nothing about the problem the award mechanism is supposedly addressing. From their news (
    “Recent trends have demonstrated an increase in the length of the traditional scientific training period that often translate into an increase in the amount of time it takes for scientists to embark on independent research careers. These hurdles can result in valuable time lost by scientists in pursuit of independent biomedical research and deter students as they consider possible careers in biomedical research.
    Although traditional post-doctoral training is appropriate for the majority of new Ph.D. and M.D. recipients, there is a pool of talented junior scientists who have the intellect, scientific creativity, drive, and maturity to flourish independently without the need for traditional post-doctoral training. Consequently, the NIH has created the EIA Program to provide support for outstanding investigators within a year of completion of their degree to launch their own independent research programs.”
    Don’t tell me that they think that by funding 10 such awards per year, they’re really impacting the lives of most of the “trooly talented” junior scientists in the States. This is ridiculous.


  15. Anonymous52 Says:

    Why would anybody object to this?
    It solves half of the problems young researchers have as professionals by drawing a more clear career path. Also it’s not fun doing somebody else’s research, this thing is much much better.


  16. Anonymous52 Says:

    10 > 0
    Much much better than nothing.
    Science needs to regain its prestige & offerings as a profession, offering these spots is a good move in that direction.


  17. LadyDay Says:

    @ Anonymous52: Look, I get the 10 > 0 argument. That’s great for the folks who get these awards. The problem is that it’s not enough. Let’s not pretend that by giving a special promotion to 10 people per year that we’re really helping out the vast majority of promising [postdoc] scientists out there. It’s a mere drop in the bucket for a system that has a LOT of problems.
    And, yes, I too didn’t always enjoy working on “someone else’s research,” but, honestly, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, I learned a lot and it expanded my research interests.
    I see nothing wrong with doing a postdoc for a couple of years. Increase postdoctoral pay to government payscale and give postdocs benefits in accordance with other government jobs, and you solve a good bit of the actual problem. The *problem* is when folks get trapped in *extended* postdocs with crappy pay, no benefits, and seemingly little promise of attaining a permanent academic position. This can be very discouraging for many promising academic scientists, of which there are much more than 10 per year.


  18. Anonymous52 Says:

    It’s not a complete package nor will it address everything. As a standalone move however, it is a good one, in fact a very good one.


  19. LadyDay Says:

    @ Anonymous52: Thinking about it some more, I don’t even think this award is a good move. Why not use that funding to boost the number of K awards given out, instead? Moreover, I don’t know a single grad student who is ready for that kind of responsibility. Maybe you do, but I do not. And, probing even further, who is going to get this grant, anyway? Is its award going to be immune from the favoritism that already exists in science?


  20. LadyDay Says:

    Also, why not use that funding to boost the number of F and T awards for early stage postdocs? Or to boost postdoctoral stipend levels, in general?


  21. LadyDay Says:

    Not to mention that these awards are for only 5 years. Let’s say you win one of these awards – what happens to the staff that you hire as support when your funding runs out and there’s no further commitment from the institution?


  22. Anonymous52 Says:

    favoritism is not a reason to stop “independence” grants. I believe this to be a good move but at this stage all opinions are more or less equally valid. Time will tell, if e.g. in 20 years 3 of these 10 people are very strong scientists, then it would be a good move, if all have mediocre careers it would be a bad move. Personally, I believe it will turn out to be a good move.
    regarding postdocs:
    postdoctoral stipends need a huge boost, their pay level is the reason I did other things in life, however that being said, provided there’s a fixed amount of $ to go into research, the number of postdoctoral positions will shrink. Personally I would be in favor of such a move, there’s no point in hiring people on soft money, knowing in advance it’s impossible for even half of them to find a job later, not to mention that jobs should be paid, a frugal life is not to everyone’s taste. That being said you can’t have both good salary levels and the same amount of postdoctoral jobs available.


  23. whimple Says:

    …provided there’s a fixed amount of $ to go into research, the number of postdoctoral positions will shrink.
    Nah, we’ll just keep staffing them with an increasingly desperate pool of educated immigrant labor. Post-doc salaries could fall all the way to ZERO and chumps^H^H^H^H^H^Hpeople would still sign up. In fact, there’s a potential money-maker there… charge people for the privilege of a temporary visa and the educational value of the American guest-scientist experience. I’m sure all the non-lazy people would happily pay out.


  24. Dveduu Says:

    That’s probably true. In order to get a faculty position in my home country, one is basically required to do a post-doc in the states.


  25. LadyDay Says:

    @ whimple: Now don’t go giving people any ideas….


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