Through my discussions on my K99/R00 forum, I'm noticing a trend for applicants: they get mixed messages and experience a lot of confusion about what the K99 phase of the K99/R00 is REALLY supposed to be about. Some Institutes allow the K99 phase to occur during the initiation of a tenure track position (i.e. you get the award as a postdoc but start an assistant prof job at the same time as your K99 phase starts). Other Institutes absolutely do not allow this, and require a minimum amount of time to be spent as a postdoc on the K99 portion, and then require transition to the R00 phase (rather than carry-over and continuation of the K99 phase through its maximum 2-year allowance).
Program's explanations for their positions vary: from understanding that people are in the sweet spot for K99/R00 and tenure track competitiveness within the same ~2-year window in their lives, to insisting that the point of the K99/R00 is to make people competitive (results/training-wise, not just reputation-wise, which a successful K99/R00 proposal makes you) for tenure track positions (as originally conceived) and that people who are already applying for TT should be ready to just apply for R01s instead. The latter aren't comfortable with the K99/R00 being *just* a rubber stamp "gold star" for TT application packages until after the awardee has played out their postdoc stage, and presumably think that postdocs should stay in their mentor's labs until they are fully cooked to some vaguely defined stage of additional "doneness." (which, it seems, K99 reviewers largely already expect...)
Unfortunately, that's just not how it works for most postdocs. By the time you're in prime K99 application stage, you're in year 2-3-4 of a postdoc position. You may or may not have a mentor who can afford to keep spending money on you establishing your own independent directions. You may be pressured to leave the lab soon, you may be pressured by your family concerns to move on from the low salary trainee stage. You are one of 200-300 applicants for any faculty position to which you apply. Like I said before, you cannot afford to put all of your eggs in the K99 basket, and might NEED to apply for jobs, yet should success in that process preclude you from funding if you get an outstanding score on a K99/R00 proposal and the reviewers think you would benefit from the training plan you described? (especially when that training plan can essentially just be transferred and still occur while you also start a TT position)
The other part that some POs might not quite have come to terms with (even though they are the very people with these numbers...) is that getting enough R01 support to get tenure is COMPLETELY non-trivial, even for highly successful beginning investigators with the New Investigator bonus. Here are my specific concerns about this:
1. The new structure and reviewing guidelines mean that you essentially have to have all of your preliminary data published. There simply is no room for preliminary data figures in a 12 page R01 format. If reviewers are going to adequately assess the potential for your project's success on an R01 scale (budgets typically the so-called 'modular' $250K DIRECT costs per year for 5 years), they need to see you have established significant feasibility for all of your aims, and these days that means peer-reviewed publication of preliminary work.
2. R01 budgets may be proposed at $250K for 5 years, but ALMOST ALWAYS get cut upon award by as much as 25-30% or MORE in amount, and as much as 1-2 years in time (so in reality you end up looking at a spending account that gives you only $150-200K per year for as little as 3 years). In other words, right back to R00 levels of funding. For many institutions, especially the fancy-pants medical school types, you also have to cover a large portion of your own salary and benefits (which is usually >100K), plus postdoctoral staff cost a lot more in places where the cost of living is high (as much as $100K/yr in salary and benefits themselves, think about what you all are wanting to ask for as your K99 salaries!). So right there, covering your own and ONE postdoc's salaries kills nearly the entire R01 budget at most institutions (and similarly, an R00 budget if you do come in with one).
3. Many, many many institutions (especially those aforementioned fancy-pants places and medical schools on the coasts etc.) are going to expect more than one R01 in a successful tenure package. And when you look at the numbers on the ground I described in #2 above, you can see why. In order to bring in the big papers in the Glamour Mags (which those big name places basically require for tenure), you are gonna need to populate your lab with more than just one postdoc and yourself. You are gonna need at least a couple of postdocs and a tech to keep things chugging at the pace that will get you there. In these tight funding days, that most likely means more than one major grant pre-tenure.
Of course not all institutions will require this of TT faculty. But nonetheless, the reality on the ground (with R01s being what they are and requiring what they require) is that a K99/R00 award can function as ~50-75% of an R01 as you get going pre-tenure. If used judiciously and efficiently, and if the training plan goals with appropriate mentoring are actually followed through, that can mean a substantial leg up on the tenure process.
My opinion: The goals of the programs should be to help facilitate long-term success in tenure track positions, not just to get people into them. The grant has been around long enough now that they should be able to start looking at their outcomes under different conditions (K99 phase long/short, what kind of job title held for K99 phase, what type of institution for K99 and for R00, future R01 success, future tenure success) and see how things are turning out. (NIGMS Director Berg anybody...?) My hunch is that providing more practical tenure track success mentoring (workshops? other mandated, direct contact programs? additional mentoring requirement BY grantees who successfully move on to R01 funding FOR early-stage grantees?) and allowing the K99 phase to be under the control of the investigator (rather than some imagined idealized situation) will better push future R01 and tenure success.