Arlenna of Chemical Bilology, over at Scientopia, has a post up today about the focus of the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award. I am having technical difficulty commenting over there, so I figured that I would just make my own post about the topic, from my point of view*
My understanding has always been that the K99/R00 Award is first a training award. The point of the K99 phase is to allow continued mentored support for up to 2 years, acting as a "bridge" from the end of a typical 2-3 yr new postdoc fellowship (NRSA-like) until you are ready for your own independent position. The assumption, as far as I can tell, is that you will stay in your postdoc during this time. A BIG part of the K99 application (at least it was when I was writing) is the plan for mentoring and career development. The point of this phase is to enable you to land (and be prepared for) a tenure-track job so that you can write a successful R01.
When the K99/R00 program started, some new awardees were starting in a TT job almost immediately. This seemed to indicate that these folks actually didn't NEED any more mentored training. So, some institutes starting demanding that you spend at least a year in your mentored phase before transitioning. And it became really important to make clear in your application what training, exactly, you would be getting during your K99 phase. Part of the final score is based on where you say that training is coming from (the "environment"). The assumption is you will get an independent position somewhere other than where you are mentored. If you stay in the same place you are required to explain how you will become independent from your mentor. I think this shows that the NIH expects the "mentor" to be something more like a post-doc advisor than the sort of new-faculty mentors that I have as an Asst. Prof.
Arlenna points out that new TT faculty still need training and mentoring in the first 1-2 years, so they should be able to use the K99 part even if they are in their independent position. I disagree. Not because I am feeling like I don't need training! But I don't think this is what the program should focus on (Pinus made a similar point in the comments as a "devil's advocate"). If you allow this, then the award becomes a gold star for winning in your postdoc, not a training award. I would also point out that, unless you have a TT job lined up when you apply, there is no way that the training plan you propose in the original application would be the same at a different place. So you would not necessarily be getting the training that the reviewers had deemed so awesome.
The big problems that arise is that it takes FOREVER to make it through the review process. I got my K99 on the first try and STILL it was 1 yr and 2 days after I submitted before the award was activated (but who is counting, really?). This is ridiculous! No wonder by the time the awards are actually being made people have already gone out on the market. Turnaround needs to be much faster.
I guess that my point is that the NIH needs to decide what this award is about. If it is a training award then the reviewers need to make sure that is reflected in the scoring. And trainees need to be encouraged to apply earlier in their postdoc so there is time for the mentored phase. If it is a gold star, then make it clear. The point is that the rules should reflect what the purpose of the program. And the rules should be the same for ALL the institutes.
*DISCLAIMER: this is how I understand the process, based on my own perspectives and experiences. But what the hell do I know?