Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is "a non-profit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation's largest philanthropies, [and] plays a powerful role in advancing biomedical research and science education in the U.S." It announced yesterday the selection of 56 HHMI Investigators.
What's so special about this particular version of HHMI grants?
First, it's the amount of money that's involved: US $ 600 million in all! Over 10 million dollars, on average, per HHMI investigator. This is big money, even by American standards. A far better comparison for us in India is with the total support for scientific research (through individual, competitive research grants, and excluding direct, bulk, institutional grants) in our universities from our government agencies. A while ago, I estimated this to be about US $500 million.
And second, these are direct grants to individuals, without tying them down to specific projects. Here's the relevant part of the press release:
HHMI values innovation and encourages its investigators to extend the boundaries of science. By appointing scientists as Hughes investigators — rather than awarding research grants — HHMI is guided by the principle of “people, not projects.” HHMI investigators have the freedom to explore and, if necessary, to change direction in their research. Moreover, they have support to follow their ideas through to fruition — even if that process takes many years.
In other words, the HHMI Investigator awards are essentially like the MacArthur Fellowships -- aka 'Genius' awards -- except that HHMI awards are specific to biomedical research.
The take-home message, at least for me, is this: modern research -- particularly in the highly promising biomedical fields -- is expensive. If we want to nurture our faculty members, we should be willing to spend big money to support their research. Our leaders do us all a huge disservice when they keep whining only about faculty salaries without doing anything to address their very real and very vital needs: adequate grants that will take care of their equipment needs, day-to-day running of their labs, and travel to several conferences a year.
And these needs are the most acute during the very early stages of their careers. What our institutions offer them, instead, are puny start-up grants!
The closest thing to HHMI awards we have got are the Swarnajayanti awards; but there are just a dozen such awards (covering all of science and engineering) made every year, and the support tends to be limited to about 10 million rupees (or, US $250,000).