What's the Key to Becoming a Howard Hughes Investigator?

It's big. It's intimidating. It's second in the country in biomedical giving — behind the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It hands out more than $80 million annually, and you want to get in on the action. (See HHMI: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment.) But how? How does one approach an organization as enormous and complex as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)?

First of all, you need to get yourself in the door by becoming a Howard Hughes Investigator, and to do that, you need to be seriously hot stuff. The current pool of Howard Hughes Investigators (past and present) includes 172 members of the National Academy of Sciences and — get this — 17 Nobel laureates. Don't worry, though: Less-decorated researchers also are welcome to apply. You just have to wait for the competition to open up — check this page in January for an announcement that HHMI is ready to receive applications — and be working at one of the 200-plus big research schools from which HHMI takes applications. In 2013, HHMI handed out 27 investigator-ships to scientists at 19 schools around the country. (Read HHMI President Robert Tjian's IP profile.)

Optimally, you also are between five and 15 years into your career. That's enough time to be getting established but not so long that you don't still have a lengthy, productive career ahead of you. And, let's not forget, you have to be brilliant.

HHMI is a little in love with the arcane idea of the "public intellectual." This refers to the old Benjamin Franklin model, which may seem old-fashioned now but is still crucially important, HHMI believes, to a country's scientific culture. In the past century, science has become increasingly under wraps in the United States, to the point that little innovation ever trickles down to break the surface of the average working person's day-to-day life. HHMI wants to change that by focusing its giving not on remarkable projects per se, but rather on remarkable people. When HHMI chooses its Investigators, it gives them the money (up to $1.5 million per award, distributed over five years) and then stands back.

If you're selected as an Investigator, then, you'll not only get a bundle of cash but also get freedom. The freedom to take your work wherever your (clearly brilliant) mind wants it to go. "When it comes to research, HHMI takes the long view," said Jack E. Dixon, vice president and chief scientific officer. "You have to have that in basic research because you have no way of knowing if someone's research is going to be transformative 15-20 years down the line. We pick the best people we can find and then provide long-term, stable support so they can act quickly on their best research ideas."

For many HHMI Investigators, receiving the award is the kind of game changer that makes their career. "This is a tremendously exciting moment for me and my lab," says Marc R. Freeman, one of 2013's award recipients. "HHMI allows us the freedom to start with no preliminary data but dive headlong into and answer fundamental questions." So go ahead, give it your best shot.

UPDATE: HHMI is currently accepting proposals for the latest round of HHMI Investigators, with the application period from January to June 2014. The Institute is expecting to commit about $150 million over five years to employ between 20 and 25 new Investigators. HHMI keeps about 300 researchers on the payroll, extending and invitation for proposals periodically to account for attrition. The last competition was in 2012, and whittled down 1,155 to just 27 new hires.

Applicants must be currently working at one of the eligible research institutions (pdf of the list), hold a PhD or MD, and have between 5 and 15 years professional experience. To see the full set of requirements, hit the link for the full competition announcement.