This sentiment comes up, now and again, when we discuss the K99/R00 NIH grant mechanism.

This inevitably rings as critical to my ear. As if there is something suspect or underhanded about the K99/R00. At the very least as if there is something bad about it. I disagree.

The K99/R00 mechanism is the only true transition mechanism in the NIH stable. First announced in 2006, the Pathway to Independence award was designed to be won by pre-tenure-track academics (the K99 phase) who could then transition to Research funding (R00 phase) once they won a tenure track job.

Prior attempts to assist new investigators in winning research grant funding failed to cross the transition from trainee to faculty. There were postdoctoral fellowships and there were faculty level awards but nothing that you could apply for as a postdoc and carry forward into a faculty position.

You can whinge all you want about the growing reluctance of Universities to cough up research-focused tenure track Assistant Professorships with substantial startup packages. You can shout as loudly as you like about the way things should be. But that won’t change reality at University of State.

Nor will it change the reality that many of us really work for the NIH.

It is in their interest to figure out how to get their future workforce into the shell “job” (aka, Assistant Professor at University of State) as rapidly as possible. If, that is, they are dismayed by the infamous analysis showing the gradual increase of age to first R01 and other dismal demographic statistics.

In my day, youngsters, there was only the Burroughs-Welcome Career award. They have cancelled this because of the K99/R00 but it used to be the only game in town. And it was quite a plum. But IIRC the University itself controlled who could apply as a postdoc. The numbers awarded were very small. It was a program that was out of reach for many types of science…basically it was all about GlamourMag science in the place I was at at the time I considered using this mechanism.

I saw the issuance of the K99/R00 program to be a hugely important step for the NIH. It was a recognition of reality and a way to get people, young people, hired into jobs now instead of in three more years’ time. IMO.

It was democratic in the sense that all the ICs could play, meaning topic domains were not excluded by a University committee or Dean or local political power playing. It was democratic in the sense that there were quite obviously going to be more R00 PIs than there ever had been Burroughs-Welcome PIs. It was democratic in the sense that peer reviewers were going to be deciding who got the primary awards.

My fields of interest have seen many K99/R00s awarded and the awardees have transitioned into faculty positions. Which are going quite well in my estimation.

Are there people who missed out on K99s getting overlooked in faculty job searches? Undoubtedly. Is this some sort of epic and systematic tragedy?

No.

There has always been an element of career success that is driven by something other than a pure and idealistic assessment of talent. It might be due to the accidents that brought you to a particular training lab. Due to the accident of being highly successful in your graduate student or postdoctoral project. Due to the accident of who else happens to be on the job market when you are. Due to the accident of which University Departments happen to be hiring in your field and in which sub-area of concentration.

None of this is fair.

The processes that lead to a K99 award are not fair either, but they have many upsides. Some of which I’ve mentioned above.

The factor of peer review by people who sit on study sections should not be lightly dismissed. Sure, they are subject to many sorts of biases but they are much less subject to the vagaries of what Departments happen to be hiring in which topic area. They are much less subject to group think because, on the whole, the areas of scientific expertise, career type, geographic region, etc are diverse by construction.

They add another layer, another chance for a supplicant to win over a group of people. That’s a good thing.

The successful K99/R00 Assistant Professor has to win over a search committee too, you know. These jobs are not automatic. And despite rumors on the Twitters, yes, Departments are indeed still hiring people without K99/R00 awards.

I really don’t see why people are so antagonistic toward the program.

__

ps: Changes in the eligibility criteria aren’t unfair either.

pps: The NIH had a sweet deal for Intramural postdocs in place for some time.

ppps: In disclosure, I personally think the NIH should shutter the F32 individual NRSA for postdocs and apply the money to the K99/R00 program. For real.