The Sweetest Funding Gig for Biomedical Researchers Just Got Even Sweeter

 photo:  joker1991/shutterstock

photo:  joker1991/shutterstock

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s flagship Investigator program has long been one of the most prized sources of funding for biomedical research. And for good reason. 

While much research funding comes in the form of tightly defined, incremental project grants, HHMI’s investigators enjoy unrestricted funding for years at a time. The gig is now even sweeter, as the latest round of winners will receive support for an initial term of a whopping seven years instead of five, a first for the program.

As a result, the latest cohort of 19 will receive roughly $8 million each in that span, with the full round of support totaling $200 million. The seven-year term is then renewable, pending review.

That’s a pretty impressive commitment, enabling each researcher to follow their work wherever it takes them, without having to chase down grant renewals or even publish on any expected timeline, for a good chunk of their career. The institute decided to extend the term to allow recipients to pursue difficult, transformative work that involves even more risk. “Every scientist is unique, but they all need one thing: time,” says HHMI president Erin O’Shea in the announcement.

The latest HHMI Investigators will conduct a wide range of leading-edge work, from Beth Shapiro’s pioneering research on ancient DNA in prehistoric creatures, to Meng Wang’s exploration of genetic techniques that could prolong lifespan.

Researchers typically face firm limits on budgets and timeframes in most government agency grants (understandable given oversight on tax dollars), and a substantial amount of work that must be done in advance to secure funding. They also crave a certain level of flexibility—allowing time to fail, pivot, make accidental discoveries, follow creative instincts—that’s hard to come by in any sector. By offering that kind of flexibility rather than making grants, HHMI actually hires its recipients, putting them on institute payroll while they continue their research at home universities. 

Cohorts of mid-career researchers are hired periodically as HHMI Investigators—every few years or so, in response to open calls for proposals—bringing the current total to over 300. The previous round in 2015 funded 26 researchers over five years, totaling $153 million. While the terms are longer now, the total amount committed was bigger in a 2008 cohort, which awarded 56 scientists over $600 million. 

As large as the program is, the HHMI Investigators are an elite bunch—the competition is highly selective and expectations are steep. Fewer than 3 percent were chosen as HHMI Investigators from 675 eligible applicants this year. HHMI also runs programs for early career scientists, international scholars, researchers from underrepresented groups, and more. But even with net assets of $19.3 billion and annual giving topping $660 million, HHMI’s total budget is still tiny compared to the NIH’s annual budget of $37.3 billion. 

Still, as we often note, such comparisons don't capture the critical and influential role that private philanthropy plays in biomedical research—particularly by supporting riskier work and younger investigators, as well as more senior people who need greater leeway.

Funding can profoundly impact the careers of HHMI award winners. Twenty-eight current or former HHMI scientists have won the Nobel Prize, investigators have won other high-dollar research prizes like the Breakthroughs, and typically land other sources of funding. To some extent, that speaks to science funders' tendencies to pile on support for leading researchers, but also to the effectiveness of the program. HHMI Investigators are field leaders, and the program lets them stretch out.