"I literally feel like I'm growing up in this very short year of writing and winning this proposal," says Toni Jones, one of 58 biomedical investigators chosen to receive the new Pathways to Independence  award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The Pathways award is a hybrid fellowship/research grant program that bridges the postdoc and the first faculty appointment. NIH hopes that the award, which pays nearly $1 million over 5 years, will ease young scientists' transitions from mentored postdoc to independent scientist. Jones, a fourth-year neuroscience postdoc at the University of California (UC), San Diego, intends to use her award not just to further her work on spinal drug treatments and their effect on postoperative pain but also--like many of the award winners--to help land her first faculty appointment. "With this great opportunity to achieve my independence," says Jones, "I hope I'll soon get the chance to play with the big boys."
It should also help her fund her research. "The situation is bleak because if you're a new investigator trying to start your career, getting funded with an R01"--NIH's core single-investigator research grant--"is virtually impossible," she says. But writing the Pathways application gave her grant-writing skills a healthy workout, and the money she won will pay for years of protected time as she gets her research started and accumulates preliminary data in preparation for writing that R01. "The Pathway to Independence makes it easier for researchers my age and training to get funding now for our science," she says.
And that, says Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and co-chair of the committee that designed the award and sold it to NIH's various institutes, is precisely the point. "We recognize that in the current funding situation, young investigators are at risk," Landis says. "I think we are all very concerned at the NIH that people are getting faculty positions at older and older ages, and that's also true with their first R01 grant."
Young scientists have been getting older for years, but the situation is even more dire today as a result of NIH's budget woes, Landis says. Universities are feeling the pinch of tight NIH funding, and one easy way to cut back is not to hire new faculty. "If you already have faculty that are having trouble getting their grants, keeping those research programs going will be a high priority for a medical school or a research institution, and if resources are tight, getting support for a start-up junior faculty member may be difficult," Landis says. The Pathways award is an incentive for those institutions to hire new faculty, Landis says--specifically, the Pathways award winners.
"Having your own money in the academic world always opens doors," agrees Martin Rodriguez-Porcel, a third-year postdoc who studies oxidative stress in stem cells at Stanford. Rodriguez-Porcel plans to finish his current projects first, then move to the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, for the award's postdoc phase. He hopes he'll be able to stay on at Mayo as an independent researcher."This mechanism allows me to do exactly what I want: to become a leader of my own lab, with my own people and my own projects," he says.
At the trailhead
Since NIH introduced the award in January 2006, it has received about 900 applications. Most of the first-round awardees were announced in late November; another six first-round awards will be announced later this month, and the winners of the next two rounds will be announced over the next 6 months. NIH is expected to make between 150 and 200 awards during this fiscal year; NIH's current best guess is 171 awards. During the first round, NIH received about 400 applications, for a success rate of about 15%. The success rate for the subsequent rounds may be higher, because fewer applications were received for the second and third rounds.
Although all three of the first year's application deadlines have passed, the program is expected to continue for at least four more years. Postdocs at U.S. institutions fewer than 5 years out from their Ph.D.s have another chance to apply before the next deadline in early February 2007. Unlike every other training award NIH offers, this one is open to foreign nationals.
Marking the trail
Landis and other NIH administrators express satisfaction about the Pathways award's early days, but there is some concern--at NIH and in the scientific community--about the way eligibility was determined. The award's announcement indicates that applicants cannot be faculty members, observes Randy Blakely, a professor and director of the Center for Molecular Neuroscience at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. "The key word that is missing was independent faculty member," he says. At Vanderbilt and many other institutions, nontenure-track, nonindependent faculty positions are occupied by senior postdoctoral fellows. "They are essentially postdoctoral fellows who advanced to these positions because it provides them with some added benefits and they've been successful. It's unfortunate because these are just the people they would want to recruit to the competition," he adds. But "this deterred them from being able to compete in this competition," says Blakely, whose staff includes an instructor and a research assistant professor who, due to their faculty titles, didn't qualify for the new award.
NIH is aware of the problem and is retooling. "There is a small group at NIH looking at eligibility criteria and trying to come up with criteria that is less dependent on title and more dependent on the actual position that the person has," says NIH's Landis. So in future, eligibility may be determined by job responsibilities such as whether a potential candidate supervises other scientists, and whether they are allowed by their institutions to apply for research grants.
Landis and her colleagues at NIH had other concerns about the award during the first year, and these, Landis says, are also being addressed. NIH didn't attract as many applications as it wished from physician-scientists, for example--because, Landis says, the Pathways postdoc stipend isn't competitive even with other NIH physician-scientist training awards. So for next year, the stipend for physician-scientists will be increased.
Hiking in place
Andrew West, a fourth-year postdoc studying Parkinson's disease at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland--and a Pathways award winner--is concerned that the cash he and other recipients bring to the table will encourage institutions to be stingy with the start-up packages they offer Pathways award winners, offsetting the award's value. "While it [the award] may open a door to getting a job, I certainly won't want them to subtract out from any package what comes from my R00," says West, who has started applying for faculty jobs and hopes to have one next fall.
NIH keeps a close eye on the kinds of offers Pathways award winners receive, Landis says. "The program directors will be looking very carefully that people who have this award will get good packages. We will also be watching with a great deal of interest to see how soon people who make the transition will put in for additional funding."
Biochemist Susan Gerbi of Brown University, who served on a National Academies' panel that recommended NIH adopt such a program, shares West's concern about stingy start-up packages. She also notes that the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) already has discontinued its core program, the Career Awards in the Biomedical Sciences--a direct response to the new NIH program. (BWF continues to offer similar awards to scientists training in niches BWF considers to be underserved, such as physician scientists and physical scientists who want to work in biology.) "Phasing that out--just having this replace what was already in place--wasn't the intention," Gerbi says. "Clearly, BWF had a good idea, which is why the committee followed suit in their recommendations."
"The current program for young investigators is a step in the right direction, but even more meaningful would be having a separate pot of money for new investigators. That way, too, NIH would not be influencing who the schools decide to hire as they might be with the current program," Gerbi adds.
For some applicants, just competing for the Pathways award was a valuable experience. "While it's not quite as detailed, essentially this is my first opportunity to get to write an R01-type grant, so I found this incredibly valuable," says Needhi Bhalla, a fourth-year postdoc at UC Berkeley. The process of applying, she says, has already made her more independent by making her think hard about the direction she wants her research to move in. "To think about those questions starts you on that path, and with this grant, you have the funding to address those questions," she says.
"Just writing the application and thinking about my research and my project in the very near future was very rewarding already," says Bing Ye, a postdoc at UC San Francisco, who won the award just before the end of his final year of eligibility. "Many people start to think about their future independence only when they start applying for jobs, but I got to think about that one whole year before."
"There's always a lot of questions," Ye says. " 'Am I going to be able to do it?' ... or 'Am I only good when I'm doing things that somebody tells me to do?' At the beginning, it's like that for most postdocs I think, but as time goes on, you get more and more independence if you're doing things right." Ye plans to begin applying for faculty jobs soon.
Jim Austin contributed to the reporting for this article.
Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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See also: A New Path for Postdocs , J. Austin, ScienceNOW Daily News, 1 December 2006.