The NIH has a nice COVID-19 related FAQ page up now, it’s worth keeping bookmarked.

One category of person in science who is under particular COVID-related stress is anyone who has NIH opportunities available to them that are time delimited.

For example, any postdoctoral trainees on NRSA support. There are constraints on total support time on fellowships like the F32/T32 NRSA awards which limit postdoctoral fellows to three years maximum. There’s a FAQ answer here and a link to more information. The latter is more general and says, importantly, that stipends can continue to be paid even if the trainee cannot work, due to COVID-related shutdowns. That is all well and but fails to address the concern about burning daylight doing nothing. The FAQ answer reads: Yes, as outlined in NOT-OD-20-086 recipients may extend awards affected by COVID-19 through a notification to the funding IC. For awards where such an extension impacts research progress, the IC will provide support and address any impact on the NIH-funded research. which is fairly imprecise. There is an even more focused FAQ entry which is answered as follows: “Yes. Recipients may submit extension requests to the funding IC for consideration when the effects of COVID-19 have altered the planned course of the research training/activities. Extension requests must include a description of how COVID-19 affected the NRSA and/or fellowship award, and clearly outline how much additional time is needed.  All such requests must be signed by the fellow, the Authorized Organization and the fellowship sponsor.

It’s all going to depend on what “the IC will provide support” means in the end. Will this be a with cost extension of the F32 for however many months the person cannot work due to COVID-related formal shutdown? That seems to be the intent of this last statement. Will they entertain longer intervals if the shutdown entails a loss of productivity far beyond the interval of formal University shutdown? This is likely to be true for the researcher and I’d say the NIH is very unlikely to take this broad approach. The “clearly outline how much additional time is needed” part is somewhat encouraging, however. My advice to the audience is to keep beating this drum as loudly and as frequently as possible on social media and what not. NIH has to understand that their role is to make people whole, not to chinz out on narrow technical “replacement” of time lost due to formal University shutdown timelines.

The T32 awards could be more flexible, I think. They run longer than the F32s and so there is the possibility there that NIH simply permits keeping a T32 fellow on past his or her 3 years if the T32 Director chooses to do so. I’m doubtful any additional funds will be provided so the T32 training faculty are going to have to think hard about how and whether they would use such flexibility, if offered. Could get sticky. But you never know, perhaps supplements could be provided. Otherwise it is not simple for the T32 Director and her core of training faculty. Renewal of the T32 is competitive and reviewers tend to bean count the number of trainees and how successfully they’ve been rotated off into other things. Locally speaking, will it be just the few people who are in their third year right now that get extra support? Well the ones in their second year are also burning daylight right now, and are going to feel slightly miffed about that.

Then we come to the K99/R00 (and the NIH intramural version the K22). The K99/R00 is designed to offer one or two years of postdoctoral support under the K99 mechanism, followed by three or four years of research grant support in the R00 phase. The first concern has to do with eligibility to apply, which is limited based on the time since the applicant’s doctoral award.

Applicants must have no more than 4 years of postdoctoral research experience at the time of the initial (new) or the subsequent resubmission application.

Ok, technically that is a running clock on postdoctoral employment so I suppose if you take time off after the PhD to do anything else, your clock is not expiring. But most applicants will be closely watching this eligibility. My stock advice (under normal circumstances) to any newish postdoc is to take a look at the last possible date for the “subsequent resubmission application” that comes in within the 4 year deadline and work back from that to where the first application must go in. Well, COVID-19 shutdowns are going to play havoc with this. Now the NIH has issued several notices stating flexibility in this timeline for various things, child bearing, elder care, etc. So this is probably a no-brainer even absent any specific COVID guidance. But the above mentioned FAQ specifically references this question. The answer is: “Yes, K99 applicants can request an extension to their K99 eligibility window due to the effects of COVID-19 on their research productivity. Affected applicants should consult with the funding IC for further guidance.” So far, so good. But still nerve-wracking, of course, because any given applicant can’t know for sure if he or she is going to be permitted the extension, or denied, by his or her target IC. They cannot know how much of an extension will be offered. One round? It may not be enough for full recovery of the person’s best possible proposal, including preliminary data.

Harkening back to yesterday’s post, this means that the very nervous K99 hopeful is going to be highly motivated to press ahead and stay on the schedule that she or he knows for a fact will be approved. I really wish NIH would find a way to be more definitive, such as saying the eligibility interval will just be a default 5 years for anyone who had 1-4 years experience as a postdoc as of March, 2020.

Now what about those lucky few who managed to land a K99/R00 award? There is a very nasty little problem for them, which is that the training phase is supposed to be no longer than 2 years and the R00 is supposed to start right afterwards. The R00, you will recall, requires that the person be hired in an Asst Professor job. So that has to be signed, sealed and almost delivered by the end of two years of K99 support. I’m sure I don’t have to remind this readership how hard it is for hopeful postdocs to land a job. And that many professorial jobs on offer follow the academic cycle of applications due in the fall semester, review in the early winter with interviews commencing soon thereafter. With luck, a candidate has things settled by April or May but this stuff can drag on, depending on…factors. In the Time of Corona, some Universities are putting a freeze on hiring, save for “essential” hires. How will this be interpreted for professorial hires? I don’t know. But I guaranfrickentee there are K99 holders sweating bullets about this right now. If the candidate is not lucky (in the ToC or just generally), they may have to wait an entire year for the job cycle to start up again. The text of the K99 is not very friendly about this.

The K99/R00 award will provide up to 5 years of support in two phases. The initial (K99) phase will provide support for up to 2 years of mentored postdoctoral research training and career development. The second (R00) phase will provide up to 3 years of independent research support, which is contingent on satisfactory progress during the K99 phase and an approved, independent, tenure-track (or equivalent) faculty position. The two award phases are intended to be continuous in time. Therefore, although exceptions may be possible in limited circumstances, R00 awards will generally only be made to those K99 PDs/PIs who accept independent, tenure-track (or equivalent) faculty positions by the end of the K99 award period.

Emphasis added. As I’ve tried to point out in many blog posts, almost everything at the NIH that appears to be a “rule” is negotiable. The phrase in this that exceptions “may be possible in limited circumstances….generally only be” is a perfect reflection of my understanding. I’ve heard of all kinds of exceptions being made to all kinds of stated rules. I’ve heard even more stories about people trying to get exceptions to one thing or another being totally stonewalled. It is hard not to confirm one’s bias about such anecdata that it seems like the insider club types get a lot more exceptions than us strugglers. And K99 holders pick up on this sort of uncertainty.

Me, I would say, talk to Program. But I actually have, about this exact scenario, and I got a sort of hard-line response. Of the “no way, no how they HAVE to get a job by the end of the first year”. I, being aware of at least one exception and the above text, tend to take this with a grain of salt. For one thing, I was asking as a PI. The PO might be keen on sending a brush back message to any PI who is angling to keep the K99 awardee in their lab as long as possible. The PO may also be trying to keep the fire lit under their K99 awardees to take job searching seriously. And with urgency. The PO doesn’t care a whit if their K99 people end up in a more [insert some aspect of the variety of academic jobs] job than that person would prefer in their heart of hearts. Perhaps that is all this person was trying to communicate, hoping to get their ICs K99s employed in anything that would vaguely permit them to do research. I don’t know what the intent was. But it was very clear that this PO was trying to be all hard ass about their particular IC’s viewpoints on K99 transition.

It’s stupid to me. Why not let the K99 take a year off of funding before starting her R00 if that is the way it has to be? Why force them to maybe take a job under less than ideal circumstances? Maybe there is a spousal hire situation that is complicating things? Maybe they just haven’t been able to land something really awesome that they maybe could with one more hiring cycle.

Anyway, particularly in the Time of Corona, I’d like to see NIH do this. They almost are. In response to this particular FAQ, they say: NIH is providing maximum flexibility and will accept these requests from recipients affected by COVID-19. Individuals and mentors should contact the funding IC in writing to provide details on the delays related to COVID-19.

WHHHYYYY????? Why do they have to say this in Bureaucratic Weaselish? Why can’t they just fricken say “The NIH will permit a one year unfunded interval between K99 completion and R00 initiation.”? Or even “The NIH will permit the recipient to choose three years of K99 time at the expense of only two R00 years (something about the extra budget rolling over).”?

It’s so frustrating. Good that they are addressing this. Good that in all liklihood the existing K99 awardees will be able to adapt their course to the ToC related circumstances. ….but for goodness sake, why do they always have to make this so uncertain and nervewracking for their awardees?