A March 2005 report by the National Academy of Sciences called on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to build a ”bridge to independence” for young scientists struggling to establish themselves as independent researchers. On 27 January, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni answered that call by opening just such a bridge, in the form of an innovative grant program that will speed postdocs into assistant professorships and independent research. The initiative transfers funds from established programs into a pool reserved for young investigators, with the objective of invigorating science and meeting the ”most critical and major goal for NIH, [which] is to encourage independent inquiry by promising new investigators early in their career,” Zerhouni told reporters in a teleconference that morning.

But Zerhouni also made clear that only a tiny minority of the nation's early-career scientists would be able to cross that metaphoric span (represented on the program's Web site by a poetic photo of a broad, elegant suspension bridge). For the great majority of postdocs--those who aren't accommodated by the ”pathways” program--tighter NIH budgets provide few routes to improved circumstances.

Crossing Over

The new Pathway to Independence Awards, also known as K99-R00 awards (or, less formally, as ”K99s”), will provide nearly $1 million over 5 years to each of the 150 to 200 scientists chosen annually on the basis of their research proposals. Applicants must have fewer than 5 years of postdoctoral experience. Both citizens and noncitizens are eligible, making this the first extramural K award open to scientists who are not citizens or permanent residents (although international postdocs must apply from within the United States and must have visas that permit them to complete the program). The competition opens in April, with the first grants slated for fall 2006.

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NIH Lends a Hand to Postdocs Seeking to Become Independent Researchers
Science News, 3 February 2006
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Five years of essentially guaranteed support will cover the ”crucial transition” from postdoc to faculty member, said Zerhouni at the teleconference, as awardees take ”the last step of dependent [research] and the first step of an independent research career.” During the first 2 years of the award, recipients will receive up to $90,000 annually, including indirect costs, to work as mentored researchers in senior investigators' labs while seeking faculty positions. When these mild-mannered postdocs land assistant professorships--as most of them undoubtedly will--they will duck into an NIH phone booth and emerge as mighty, full-fledged, funded PIs with their training grants transformed into independent research awards worth up to $249,000 per year (including reimbursement of facilities and administrative costs) for each of the next 3 years.

The dollars will be ”portable,” Zerhouni added, ”freeing the scientists to be able to negotiate at the best institution they can find.” The awards, he said, will allow the new investigators to ”take risks” in their research and ”will make them very attractive to institutions.” Young scientists starting their first faculty jobs ”will now be able to negotiate space and other resources on an equal basis with every other awardee.” Indeed, Zerhouni predicted, the awards ought to encourage institutions to create new positions to attract these gifted--and flush--young investigators.

A bevy of postdocs with a cool million already in hand will change the job-hunting process, says John Lipscomb, professor of biochemistry at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. These applicants will no longer have to dread the now-crucial chalk talk, ”a big part of the job interview,” in which they try to convince prospective employers that granting agencies will judge them and their ideas fundable. The advance assurance of money is also ”an advantage for the school because they can see what a person can really do” without taking an expensive risk on a researcher who may not ultimately win funding.

Another important plus is that ”getting money into the hands of assistant professors would encourage students to come into science,” Lipscomb says. In place of today's discouraging spectacle of frustrated postdocs unable to move ahead and frantic assistant professors struggling to win a first grant, students will see young scientists at the very beginning of their careers already pursuing their own ideas in their own labs.

Still, Lipscomb adds, because the new awards cover only 3 years of independent research--and at a lower annual level than the typical 5-year R01 grant--”pathways” fellows will still face a significant challenge: ”If they come in with a grant, they will have to get [a new one] before they come up for tenure.” In the R01 competition, ”pathway” award winners will still be eligible for new-investigator status.

Despite these limitations, Lipscomb expects the new grants to provide ”a big boost” to the awardees, whom he believes will be highly organized postdocs who have been granted a degree of independence while still working in topflight labs. ”Those who already have a project going are the ones who can do it,” he says.

Small Favors

The relative handful of postdocs the new program anoints can indeed look forward to the exceptional opportunities that Zerhouni describes. But for the scores of thousands of their less-favored colleagues, most of whom are also dependent on NIH funding, career prospects look less bright. With 150 to 200 job hunters precertified as fundable coming onto the tight academic market each year, the competition for faculty posts will stiffen for applicants without a Pathway to Independence or another major award.

Postdocs holding first- or second-year Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards will receive small increases in their stipends this year, and NIH has announced a rise in the institutional allowances that pay for all NRSA fellows' health insurance and certain other ancillary expenses, even in a climate of very tight budgets. But despite these small--if welcome--changes, the general funding picture is tight for postdocs supported by PI grants and other forms of NIH support.

The appropriation that Congress passed in December amounts to the first funding cut for NIH since 1970 and will necessitate grants to be funded at 97.6% rather than 100% of the awarded amount, even for those with existing NIH grants. In addition, competition for those grants will probably increase. Beyond that, the $394 million that Zerhouni says is ”committed” to the Pathway to Independence awards over the next 5 years must come from already strained institute budgets. ”I took it across every program, all across NIH,” he said. ”It's taking a slice from all budgets. We're not taking it from one pool of R01s.”

This all adds up to ”slightly decreased funding” for all NIH-funded labs, Lipscomb says, which will ”matter a lot to certain [ones] and … won't matter to others. … Some labs will lose,” especially those that are less established and not as well funded. ”The quality of the lab comes into play,” with the ”more competitive” faring best. ”It will make a difference, but it won't have a huge effect on the national research effort,” says Lipscomb. There may be dislocations for some current postdocs, but, Zerhouni says, ”nothing is more important than supporting the new investigators early. … In the press of budget adjustment, we do not jeopardize the seeds of the future.”

Winners and Losers

”This [will not be] a full-employment system for postdocs,” warned National Academies President Bruce Alberts at the meeting in March that announced the report calling on NIH to build new ”bridges to independence.” At the same meeting, Howard Hughes Medical Institute President Thomas Cech predicted that such a funding program for selected postdocs would ”have a wonderful effect of encouraging early consideration of [other] career opportunities” among the nonwinners. By getting a few promising scientists into independent research positions sooner, the new program will undoubtedly be good for science.

But for the majority of postdocs, its most important effect may well be a clarification of their prospects for landing an academic job, a source of valuable--if not necessarily welcome--professional feedback. NIH's new bridge appears not to be the wide-open suspension span pictured on the program's Web site but rather a drawbridge that opens for a few but is most decidedly closed to others.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.