How the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Polices Scientific Ethics

Did you hear the story about the retraction of a study linking childhood immunizations and autism? Or about how China is suddenly turning a brisk business in fraudulent scholarly articles? In the Information Age — or the Internet Age, or the Facebook Age, or whatever age we're in — this serious erosion of scientific ethics is all too common. Significant retractions of recent scientific "breakthroughs" pepper the headlines, and it can be hard to know what information to trust. It harkens back, in a way, to the 1890s, when ointments and tinctures promised to cure dropsy and hair loss and revitalize your love life, all in one. The public was duped then, just as it is being duped now. Even more troubling is that the sorts of brilliant minds who police what gets published in academic journals are being duped as well.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute wants to avoid such a fate, naturally. While a manifesto on policies and academic honesty is suspiciously absent from many funders' websites, HHMI's stance on ethics is clear and thorough. The institute discusses its views on the sharing of tools and techniques. It talks about intellectual property, scientific misconduct, and the legal ramifications of licensing and consulting. Known as an enthusiastic funder of "creative" scientific ventures, HHMI perhaps is just safeguarding against some rogue scientist's assumption that "creative" means "borrowed."

The policies on academic honesty and more fit in perfectly with HHMI's strong but fairly narrow commitment to scientific discovery. The institute gives its grant money only to researchers at 200 or so selected schools. Before anyone can receive the money, he or she must be christened an Investigator. HHMI is a philanthropy, so it can set up whatever hoops it wants to have researchers jump through. The take-away message here is, if you want to win money from HHMI, you'd better do your homework. And that includes following every last legal, ethical, and academic policy to a T.