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Is the NIH’s Pathway to Independence Grants Program Working?

Jesse Jenkins

How many Pathway to Independence grant recipients actually get an R01 grant funded? And how is the program changing in the near future? Find out...

For many of us, our first taste of independence came as teenagers when we received our driver’s license or somewhere in our 20s when we moved out of our parents’ house. But for investigators funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), independence comes a little later in life: The average age of first-time recipients of an R01 grant is 42.

Seven years ago, the NIH launched the Pathway to Independence Program (K99/R00) to fast track post-docs into independent research positions earlier in their careers. Source: David Mertl

Average Age of Principal Investigators with MD, MD-Ph.D., or Ph.D. at the time of first R01 Equivalent Award from NIH, Fiscal Years 1980 to 2011. Source: Rock Blog

New NIH Investigators, R01-Equivalent grants, new (type1): Success rates, by career stage of investigator. Source: NIH Data Book, 2013Seven years ago, the NIH realized they had a problem providing sufficient funding to young researchers. So they launched the Pathway to Independence Program (K99/R00) to fast track post-docs into independent research positions earlier in their careers. From 2007 to 2011, the NIH committed $390 million to support the program, issuing 1147 awards during that time span.

So was the initiative successful in transitioning recipients to independent research positions? And will the NIH be able to maintain its commitment to the program given the recent decreases in science funding?

We catch up with several Pathway to Independence award winners we previously spoke with in 2010 to see if they had indeed obtained their independence. 

Let Freedom Ring

The short answer is yes, the program seems to work for those who receive grants. “We have a pretty high percentage that transition,” said Sally J. Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research and co-chair of the Advisory Committee to the Director working group on the biomedical research workforce. “We consider the transition to independence as getting a position where you can get the ‘R’, and we have a high percentage of those that get the ‘R’, somewhere in the 80th percentile. We figure that’s a good percentage.”

The 5-year program consists of 2 phases: the initial K99 phase, which provides 1 to 2 years of mentored support with up to $75,000 in salary and up to $25,000 in research funding, and the subsequent R00 phase, which provides up to $250,000 per year for 3 years as researchers apply for their first R01 grant.

Matthew Gentry is one of the program’s success stories. He received his Pathway to Independence award in 2008. That same year, he set up a lab at the University of Kentucky, and in 2010 he received his first R01 research grant to study the neurodegenerative Lafora disease. Although it seems like a pretty smooth transition, Gentry says that over the last five years the job market has gotten tighter, making the K99 grant even more essential today than it was a couple of years ago.

“When I had my K99 and I had my interviews, the vibe that I got was that the K99 was a nice bonus, but that didn’t influence the decision to bring me in or to hire me,” said Gentry. “What I’m hearing now from friends and the hiring committees I’ve been on, is that people are not making offers to people unless they have money. So you almost have to have a K99, Early Career Development Award, or an R01 already before you can get a job.”

Another 2008 recipient, Kate O’Connor-Giles, now an assistant professor of genetics and molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agrees. “The K99 made a tremendous difference in my job search in that it demonstrated my ability to obtain funding,” said O’Connor-Giles. The R00 funding also gave her the flexibility to explore new directions in her lab, such as studying the molecular regulation of synapse formation, growth, and plasticity, research that is now funded by an R01 grant.

For Jun Ding, who is now an assistant professor at Stanford, writing the five-year research plan for the K99 forced him to think ahead and formulate his research ideas. In addition, the R00 phase also allowed Ding to take greater risks and afford costly equipment, both of which enabled him to explore the functional organization of motor circuits using electrophysiology, two-photon microscopy, and optogenetics.

“It’s put me in a good position to test ideas using a lot of innovative, risky approaches,” said Ding. “If I didn’t have it, I’d probably have to do some more conventional projects in order to secure my first R01. With the R00 money, I feel more willing to explore.”

But the Pathway to Independence program has not yet accomplished its goal of reducing the average age of first-time R01 recipients. According to NIH data, the average age is still 42, the same as when program began. So while the NIH might have curtailed an upward trend towards older recipients, the program certainly hasn’t bucked it.

In fact, the success rate for first-time R01 applicants dropped last year to 13%, down from 15% in 2011, while established investigators saw their success rate increase to 16%, up from 15% in 2011. So overall, it seems that new investigators are struggling more than ever to obtain their first R01.    

Future Pathways

Last year, the NIH announced that it planned to expand the Pathway to Independence Program. Right now, over 900 post-doctoral researchers apply each year and 23.3% receive grants through the program. The NIH wants to increase that number to 30%.

“Considering our success rate is about 17% right now in our regular programs, a 30% success rate should make it a very attractive program to apply for,” Rockey explained.

And the NIH has figured out an easy way to do that: reduce the number of applicants. Starting in February 2014, the program will reduce the window for post-doctoral researcher to apply for a K99 from five to four years after earning their Ph.D. So the success rate will increase while the number of grants awarded stays the same. The NIH claims that the idea is to encourage postdocs to pursue independence sooner, but acknowledges that this will reduce the overall quality of grant applications.  

“That does require that when we review these applications that there’s a slightly lower expectation on the part of reviewers of what they might see on an application,” said Rockey. “People will be applying one year earlier, and we don’t think they’ll see the same level of publication, so we have already trained them to be aware of that.”

But the NIH’s reduced budget due to sequestration has forced it to make fewer competitive awards. How will that affect the Pathway to Independence program?

“We have to see how that all plays out,” said Rockey. “Whether we make it, we will see…there are a lot of budgetary constraints on the NIH as a whole, but we are going to try to make it even with sequestration.”