Time was, America had scientists and inventors in place of movie stars, and the biggest point of national pride was not our latest military score but our latest patent or medical breakthrough. The founding fathers were, by and large, scientists and inventors with enough enlightenment and leisure time to contemplate the democratic ideal. At the turn of the 20th century, newspapers were abuzz with stories on the best and brightest innovations coming down the pike from Edison and Ford. Five hundred million people tuned in to watch the moon landing in 1969. Things are different now, to say the least. Our culture is not nearly so influenced by, or interested in, scientific breakthroughs.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is trying to change that. The giant hands out $80 million for biomedical research annually, and lately it has taken a proactive role in encouraging science that contributes to or collaborates with other scientists or other important projects. (See HHMI: Grants for Disease.)
In 1997, HHMI made Paul Ahlquist, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an HHMI Investigator. Ahlquist is studying viral replication and virus-host interaction, seeking to uncover evolutionary and functional relationships between seemingly disparate strains of virus. This is brilliant, far-reaching work that — though it hammers away at foundational science — contains the potential for insights with tremendous positive effects on a wide range of disciplines. (Read HHMI President Robert Tjian's IP profile.)
Similarly, David Chan, MD, PhD, of the California Institute of Technology, is delving deep into the physiology of mitochondria, exploring the puzzling conjugations and divisions they undertake over and over inside a cell. He's studying an ancient organelle — it doesn't really get more basic than that, does it? — but think of the potential impacts of his work. Think of how many scientists will benefit from his breakthroughs.
This is the kind of work HHMI is seeking to encourage: scientists at the top of their game, at big schools with a big stake in the national scientific scene, working on projects that could be serious game changers for scientific discovery in America.