Howard Hughes Medical Institute: Grants for Science Research

OVERVIEW: The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is one of the wealthiest foundations in the United States, and gives to both biomedical research and science education. Rather than handing out short grants for individual projects, HHMI essentially puts promising scientists on the payroll, including salary, benefits, and a research budget.

IP TAKE: Access to HHMI funds exists almost entirely through highly competitive contests for individuals. But winners can earn multi-year terms that allow flexibility and cover all personal and research expenses.

PROFILE: HHMI is a beast, and it functions quite differently from other science research foundations. Every year, the institute disburses hundreds of millions of dollars. Most of that funding goes to science researchers and facilities in the United States, with a smaller slice dedicated to science education. HHMI investigators are often highly accomplished, and many are Nobel laureates and/or members of the National Academy of Sciences.

HHMI doesn't just make grants. It runs competitions for the best and brightest academics, and actually puts them on the institute's payroll. The theory is that by investing heavily in the scientists “rather than awarding them grants for specific research projects, HHMI provides its researchers long-term, flexible funding that gives them the freedom to explore and, if necessary, change direction.”

The flagship example of this approach is the HHMI Investigator Program. Awardees stay at their academic institutions (although HHMI does have its own research center) but are entirely funded by the institute, including salary, benefits, a research budget, and permission to spend a portion of time teaching and otherwise benefiting their universities. They are hired for an initial term of five years, and the term is then up for extension.

HHMI keeps over 300 researchers on the payroll, extending an invitation for proposals periodically to account for attrition. Applicants must be currently working at one of the eligible research institutions, hold a Ph.D. or M.D., and have between 5 and 15 years professional experience. To see the full set of requirements, see this link for competition announcements.  

HHMI is joined by the Gates and Simons foundations for its Faculty Scholars program, which offers five-year grants ranging from $600,000 to $1.8 million to support faculty scholars in the early stages of their careers.

Finally, HHMI makes grants for international research, committing five years of support to individual scientists abroad. Early career awardees receive $650,000 in support towards “establishing independent research programs,” while “senior research scholars” are provided $500,000 in funding to conduct biomedical research.

Not content with a remote network of geniuses, in 2006 the institute also started its own campus, Janelia Farm Research Campus in Virginia, which focuses on neuroscience and imaging. At Janiela, “Group leaders...lead small research teams working together to address some of science’s most challenging problems” in a wide range of areas that includes neuroscience, evolution and genetics, and theory and computational science, just to name a few. The campus also offers graduate research fellowships for advanced students.

While HHMI states that it is uncommon to fund unsolicited grant proposals, it does maintain an Open Competitions list that is worth reviewing for upcoming opportunities.

As one might imagine, the competition for HHMI support is extremely competitive. But for those whose work and interests line up with HHMI’s priorities, the benefits of this funder’s support are hard to ignore.