With $21.2 billion in assets, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is one of philanthropy’s wealthiest funders of science and biomedical research. Founded in 1953 by aviation magnate Howard Hughes—one of the wealthiest people in the world in his time—the institute has provided nearly $4 billion in support for research and science education over the past five years alone.
One of HHMI’s core initiatives is the Investigator Program, a coveted award that provides substantial financial support to scientists who have already demonstrated research brilliance and leadership, but who are still early enough in their careers that their best work is likely ahead of them.
Recently, HHMI announced the newest cohort for the competitive program—33 scientists from 21 research institutions across the country. It’s nearly double the size of the last cohort, which we wrote about when it was announced back in 2018. HHMI is laying down at least $300 million for this new cohort of investigators, outstripping its outlay for the previous round, which totaled $200 million.
Here’s why the program is so desirable for researchers: It provides $9 million per investigator for a seven-year term. The scientists stay at their home university or institution, where they continue their research and other work. The HHMI program essentially employs the scientists and pays their salaries, so it’s also a boon for the institution they’re with. At the end of a seven-year term, the position can be considered for renewal following positive scientific review.
This is general support. Unlike most grants that fund specific research projects, the HHMI program simply hires the researcher and gives them latitude to follow their scientific curiosity, investing in “people, not projects,” as the organization’s leadership says. The ability to give researchers a chance to stretch their wings without constantly worrying about securing funding is one of the advantages private philanthropy can bring to the table as a backer of scientific research. So is philanthropy’s capacity to fund younger investigators and riskier work—also characteristics of HHMI’s program.
HHMI funds several programs, including science education, but the Investigator Program is its crown jewel. “The true central axis of Hughes are the investigators,” said David Clapham, HHMI’s vice president and chief scientific officer. “We do other work besides the investigators, but our main focus is on supporting these investigators to give them the freedom to do the best science they can.”
The scientific review team at HHMI doesn’t request thematic or subject focuses in their calls for each round of applications. They just want good scientists, Clapham said. This year’s group, unsurprisingly, included a number of specialists working in areas related to how viruses function, and other avenues foregrounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, one of the new investigators is Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, whose Twitter thread sounded the alarm on the first community transmission of COVID-19 in the United States.
Like so many biomedical funders, HHMI and its associated scientists—several of whom are investigators—responded to the pandemic with a focus on issues like diagnostic testing, understanding the basic biology of the virus, epidemiology, vaccine development, and not least through its science education teams, who supported educators and science journalism.
But, as we noted, this new cohort isn’t all about COVID-19. Other topics the newly named investigators will focus on include brain science and mental health, immunology, ways to heal diseased hearts, how bacteria become parts of cells, the three-dimensional structures of biological molecules, and the biology of plants and crop yields, among other fascinating stuff.
Of course, Clapham said, it’s possible HHMI may occasionally tweak the parameters of the Investigator Program. For example, about three years ago, the organization extended the program’s support from five years to its current length of seven years. There’s no set interval between cohort awards, but they tend to come approximately every three years. That’s about the time it takes the HHMI team to receive and review each batch of applications, a multi-step process that includes bringing candidates to HHMI to give talks. “As soon as we finish one cohort, we start planning for the next,” Clapham said.
Including the newest cohort, there are currently a total of about 250 scientists in the community of HHMI investigators. Historically, it’s been a productive group—so far, 32 former or current HHMI investigators have won the Nobel Prize, including Jennifer Doudna, who won in 2020 for her pioneering work on the revolutionary CRISPR gene-editing method.
An incidental benefit of the Investigator Program is to steer more funding to research centers in the middle of the country, Clapham said. Several of the new HHMI investigators are at institutions away from the coasts, or at institutions that have not previously been part of the HHMI program, such as Arizona State University. “If you look at the distribution of research grants from the NIH, which by far supports much more research in total dollars than we do, most of those dollars go to the East Coast and the West Coast, where the population centers are,” Clapham said. “In the end, all we care about is that we get a really good person.”