Why This Big Research Funder is Connecting STEM and Biodiversity in Mozambique

Howard Hughes Medical Institute is best known as the largest private funder of biomedical research in the United States. An uncharacteristic grant sent $2.3 million to a national park in Mozambique for a combo of STEM education, conservation, and research. 

The significance of HHMI’s role in U.S. medical research can’t be overstated, with its famed investigator program supporting some of our top scientists and groundbreaking studies, not to mention its development of elite lab facilities and equipment. So what’s it doing sending a couple of million to a park in Africa? 

Gorongosa National Park may seem out of place as an HHMI grantee, but the gift is connected to the funder’s comparatively smaller (but still large at $77 million in 2014) interest in STEM education. The park is receiving a hefty five-year grant for its E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory.

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The Mozambique lab is not your typical scholarships-and-mentoring STEM grantee, as it plays a role in biodiversity research, science education, and one of the most significant conservation programs on the continent.

Gorongosa National Park is a treasured reserve in the Great East African Rift Valley, with some of the densest wildlife populations in Africa. Following Mozambique’s independence from Portugal, civil war wreaked havoc on the country and its wildlife, with large mammal numbers in the park reduced by as much as 95 percent.

After the country stabilized, the Mozambican government partnered with U.S. nonprofit the Gorongosa Restoration Project in 2008 to bring the park back to its former state and serve as a model of conservation in Africa.

The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory, a recent addition to the project, was established in 2014, to increase the research capacity of the park and reduce the conservation effort’s dependence on foreign expertise and staffing. The lab’s site states: 

Instead, it must be developed and maintained at the very heart of the operation, and involve local experts and conservation stakeholders. But for this to happen, the park needs a facility that allows it to train a new cadre of Mozambican scientists, conduct long-term research, and document Gorongosa’s vast biological richness.

The lab was established with funding from the Carr Foundation (which seeded the restoration nonprofit) and USAID. As part of its mission to secure the future of the park and African biodiversity in general, the park and the lab emphasize education locally and abroad, to share conservation lessons and increase buy-in and interest. For example, it offers workshops, training courses, and classroom curriculum. 

The $2.3 million grant to the lab from HHMI will support educational activities and infrastructure investments. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is another past funder. 

HHMI has had some interest in the park and its lab for a while before this grant. Part of the funder’s science education component involves offering free online resources for educators, with one set of content based on this conservation effort. Aside from that, it’s hard to tell exactly where the connection began. 

But HHMI and the foundation behind the Gorongosa lab do have some overlap, with Nobel Prize-winner Paul Nurse serving as an HHMI trustee and on the board of advisors of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. Leaders at both institutions also likely travel in some very similar circles, with the E.O. Wilson outfit boasting not only the cachet of its legendary namesake, but also an all-star list of researchers as advisors. Advisor Eric Kandel, for example, is also an HHMI investigator. 

So this may not exactly signal an oncoming suite of global biodiversity grants for HHMI, but it’s certainly an intriguing educational project from a major player in science. 

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