produce preliminary results that show they can perform a particular set of experiments at a high-quality level. As a consequence, new investigators who have not had time to “establish” themselves in the specific area they wish to explore—despite perhaps brilliant postdoctoral work—are excluded from funding. Also generally excluded are scientists who may introduce new ideas and conduct important research—but do so outside of the tenure track. Talented scientists lost from the research community are a critical loss for the scientific enterprise. This chapter considers the transition from postdoctoral work to independence, whether as a tenure-track principal investigator or as a research faculty member or staff scientist, and makes recommendations for easing that transition.
The transition from postdoctoral researcher to independent scientist is perhaps the most difficult step in a research scientist’s career (National Postdoctoral Association, 2003). Yet, very few funding opportunities assist in crossing that bridge to independence, provided by either the federal government or private foundations (see Box 5-1 for an example in the private sector). By comparison, the NIH supports tens of thousands of postdoctoral fellows each year. This ratio is in need of adjustment, consistent with the recommendation of a previous NRC committee (NRC, 1998) and the National Postdoctoral Association (2003). The present committee reiterates the call for enhancing the number of “career-transition” grants for senior postdoctoral fellows with a well-defined program to help the most promising researchers make a transition to independent research and independent careers.
5.1 NIH should establish a program to promote the conduct of innovative research by scientists transitioning into their first independent positions. These research grants, to replace the collection of K22 awards, would provide sufficient funding and resources for promising scientists to initiate an independent research program and allow for increased risk-taking during the final phase of their mentored postdoctoral training and during the initial phase of their independent research effort. The program should make 200 grants annually of $500,000 each, payable over 5 years.
Although the current K22 serves a career-transition function, it faces significant challenges that limits its effectiveness (see Chapter 2 for an introduction to the K22 award). Listed below are characteristics of this proposed program that the committee feels would contribute to the success in fostering the independence of new investigators: