Wednesday, May 28, 2008

HHMI's grants to individual researchers

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?

  1. 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.

  2. 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).


  1. Anant said...

    Sorry to be a curmudgeon. Let me start with an anecdote that I once heard regarding a visit by Dirac to the ICTP. Salam took him around and showed him the fabulous library and the lecture halls and offices and the gardens and the walks. Dirac simply asked: when do they think? Why should everyone follow this or that model? That is to say: Are there not some virtues to getting a permanent position by early 30's and being allowed to relax and work at leisure. In other words, we already have a place and time to think! Why should the rat-race be the only option? And Howard Hughes: Give me a break! HH is one of the world's great defence contractors, if I am not wrong. First you make fighter aircraft which maims people, and then you have a non-profit medical research initiative on how to advance medicine. By the way, why do we only whine about government awards? Why not then go to private industry and get fellowships from them, a la the US of A? The biologists do it already in India, by getting grants from Wellcom-Glaxo, etc.. What is to stop us from writing to the Volkswagen Foundation or Microsoft Research to get our work funded? As you can see, I am trying to provoke a debate here.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Hi, Abhi, YP here from your CMU days. I always find it amusing that these institutions continue to give out individual grants for genius, esoteric work. There is lot more to be accomlished by a team of heads from various fields sitting and milking out what is already discovered. The ratio of patents to actual human0-relevant products/service is massive and needs toi change for benefits of mankind. Globalization has made larger communities of people and minds hithero isolated and therefore presents unique opportunities to create new sciences or re-define existing ones more appropriately. These funds and grants must work harder at bringing minds together and not create these silly academic competitions. How many 10000 molecules dow e really need when we can't milk even one of them appropriately? Sorry for my corporate hat!

  3. Anonymous said...

    Your comment about the rat race seems orthogonal to the article on HHMI investigators and Abi's article. One can get a permanent position at 30 or 25 or 45 , but if you do not have the resources to support your research, you will fail. Theoretical physics does not serve as a template for all other kinds of research, especially biomedical research where progress is crucially dependent on experimental instruments. To give an example closer to physics, progress in particle physics happened through construction of cycoltron,SLAC, Fermilab , CERN , LHC, each of which costs humongous amounts of money. The day we cannot fund those kind of instruments, particle physics will die.

    If one pauses to think about what does grant money do to help your research, it does 3 things: fund post docs and graduate students, buy instruments and provide money for travel. In a place like India, we do not have to be concerned with the first, but on the second and third front, you are fighting a crucial battle against other scientists with your hands tied behind your back.

    As to the source of money for HHMI, your information is incomplete. He was not only a defense contractor but a major player in civil aviation. Every time you take a flight to EPFL or Delaware, remember you are riding on the work of a number of defense contractors!!

    The motivation for more science is not primarily the benefit of human society at large, but a persistent itch to find out about the world around us.

  4. Anant said...

    as, If you think what I was saying is orthogonal, what about your examples. You have brought up the issue of funding big labs, not individual researchers. Besides if any one thinks that funding in India can ever match what happens in the US they have another thing coming. It is just not going to happen. Also just because Hughes also did civil aviation, it does not change the ethics of what I said. It is blood money whether one likes it or not. Besides to personalize the discussion and to bring up my going here or there makes no sense. The point that I am trying to say is that if we bring in unrealistic comparisons, we will not get anywhere. One can only work with the resources one has at hand. Also I did never suggest that individuals should not or do not deserve funding. It is the matter of the scale. Also we can keep in mind that we have not exhausted all the potential of whatever limited resources there are. Only when those are finished, we can think of all the things we wish we had and did not. And finally, you have not responded to why researchers have not approached private funding agencies, or non profit organizations or whatever. No one has stopped us from doing that.

  5. Anonymous said...

    I disagree with you philosophically on many points. Making blood money and accepting blood money are two separate activities. Nobody yet seems to have refused the Swedish prize because its blood money(and it is blood money). I do acknowledge the fact in my personal life that when I use a cell phone, the internet, computers, each has its origins in blood money. Read
    if you want to see a small part of the blood being used for making your cell phone today.

    As to the idea of massively funding individual scientists is realistic enough for India, it is a matter of imagination. Perhaps to give an example, when the Sarcar committee prepared the IIT report , it estimated that MIT spent Rs 1560 per student per year in 1940s, thus it suggested that the IITs spend Rs 1500 per student in 1950. This was a time when the country was importing pins!! So to imagine a scenario where a 100 people get half a million a year to do science seems unrealistic, it shows a lot about the scientific administration and polity of India.

    As to the failure of scientists to develop collaborations with private foundations, I agree with you that it shows poorly on us. However it would be important to keep some rough numbers in mind. For all the research money given by private foundation 70% of research funding comes through Uncle Sam. Thus the fact that 56 people were funded by HHMI only shows how much more NIH funds scientists. It is also interesting to note that private foundations in USA actively solicit proposals from scientists and then scientists compete for them. It is pretty rare for scientists even in the USA to generate research funds from companies out of nowhere.

    I used SLAC et al as an example because it was closer to your research. I could replicate the same example across other disciplines like nanoscience, molecular biology where funding to individual scientists is the norm, the same principle holds. If the scientists do not possess instruments which allow them to compete with other scientists, then they will fail.

  6. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    anant - the Nobels are blood money too, if it comes to that.

    A theoretical physicist doesn't need a lot of money for research, but many other scientists do.

    The HHMI grants won't fund "individuals" exactly -- it will enable those individuals to scale their operations to the size of a mini-institute. (Many biology labs have dozens of personnel.)

    I agree that we in India should tap private funding too. Some IISc physics work used to be funded by Hindustan Lever (as it then was), but I don't know whether that is still the case.

  7. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    ps - I notice as made the Nobel comment already. Also, Howard Hughes seems to have had at most a peripheral role in military technology: his interest was aviation, without regard to application, and most of his activity was in civil aviation. There are much worse examples of blood money.

  8. Abi said...

    Anant, YP, AS, Rahul S: First of all, thanks for your comments.

    Anant: I am with AS and Rahul on research funding from foundations. How much of their money is blood money is irrelevant to what they are doing now. Please separate Nobel from Nobel Foundation, HH from HHMI, and Carnegie from Carnegie Public Libraries, etc. Should we all say 'no' to research funding from the UK (for example) because of its colonial past?

    As for the need for research funding: surely, you aren't suggesting that research can happen with just job security, are you?

    We all know that big-time research money is not going to happen anytime soon in India. The figures I mentioned show that it is not happening now. Thus our expectations of what India is (and Indian scientists are) capable of achieving must be tempered by this reality.

    The other point is that while big-time funding may not happen, funding levels need not be as miserly -- particularly for new recruits -- as they are now; there are many areas where funding levels can go up.

    YP: Corporations -- which stand to benefit from inventions from their own scientists -- can take care of 'non-genius' and 'non-esoteric' work, no?!

    More seriously, I'm not in a position to evaluate the appropriateness of HHMI's (or any other organization's) choice of areas to fund -- if it were upto me, I would choose to fund materials science! And in any case, it's a private organization, and it does whatever it pleases. So, let's just assume that it knows what it's doing.

    What I do marvel at, however, is the scale of HHMI's support. Their talk is not just symbolic; it's backed by big money!

  9. Anant said...

    Dear All,

    Thank you for all your comments. I do not plan to reply systematically, but just want to have a stream of consciousness here. I would think that everyone draws the line for himself or herself where to get funding from. Some years ago, two profs. at Delaware got funding from the Pioneer Fund. There was an uproar because this organization had funded research in eugenics for ages. There were those who said `so what', and there were those who took strong exception. In other words, there are no fixed rules. For some HH and/or HHMI would be beyond the pale, for others not. The other point that I was trying to make, probably not so successfully, is that individual grants is not necessarily the one way to go. In general, in India we have always had shared facilities. Is it so that it is impossible to do good work with what is already there? And why should the US model be the only way? For instance, Alain Connes the great mathematician has actually openly said that he personally does not like that system. Again individuals can choose what they want. In fact, my view is that highly directed research (although I may be doing that myself!) is not necessarily the best way of doing science. It may curtail the growth of science. This is not to say that we do not need facilities. But if you and I are tied down to grants and projects we would be forced only to work towards those goals and the milestones we spell out. etc.. I think I have already belaboured the point enough. But please do not think I am against facilities --- far from it. But in general I am in favour of shared facilities. Regarding puny start up grants, why should not incoming faculty use existing equipment and facilities atleast to the extent possible? This I have never figured out. But then I am not an experimentalist, no matter what I say I would be seen as someone looking at the world through the template of elementary particle physics. In this regard, it must be emphasized that SLAC, Fermilab, etc., were always meant to be shared facilities, although individuals may have driven the scientific goals. And finally, the great Bob Wilson had a remarkable reputation for working with extreme shoestring budgets and he was supposed to have been a magician as far as milking the most of every cent. Maybe there is a lesson to be learnt there.

    Love, Anant

  10. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    anant -

    In fact, my view is that highly directed research (although I may be doing that myself!) is not necessarily the best way of doing science. It may curtail the growth of science. This is not to say that we do not need facilities. But if you and I are tied down to grants and projects we would be forced only to work towards those goals and the milestones we spell out. etc..

    Well, that's precisely why you should be interested in strings-free grants such as what HHMI is giving out... As Abi says, these are more like MacArthur Fellowships than the usual NSF or NIH grants.

  11. Anant said...

    Right on. I think I have nothing more to say on this. Love, Anant

  12. Abi said...

    Anant: You may not have anything more to say, but I do. In particular, I think you are totally wrong, and are being utterly unfair, in your attempt to frame HHMI in the same picture with Pioneer.

    As a foundation, HHMI is largely about supporting basic biomedical research. This kind of support is exemplary and praiseworthy. With the current initiative of HHMI Investigator awards, it has become even more prestigious.

    Pioneer, on the other hand, Pioneer Fund is known (as you pointed out) for its support of eugenics research, and for its ongoing support of researchers who are hell-bent on finding racial differences in IQ.

    HHMI and the people running do not deserve this unfair swipe.

  13. Anant said...

    Of course I bow to superior judgment! In my `defence' I was only giving an example. I don't think my example/analogy is any more extreme than that of other such that are seen on the blogosphere. Of course you know as well as I do that I have rather extreme views on US defence contractors and all their activities. I do not expect others to share my views though.

  14. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    The other question is are you talking about the past or the present? HHMI has had no connection with defence contractors since 1985, nearly a quarter-century ago. If one wants to hold funding agencies accountable for past offences -- IBM, the Rockefeller University (then Institute), Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and many others were involved in eugenics research in the early 20th century. And not everyone will argue that being a defence contractor is an offence -- certainly not on the same scale as eugenics.

  15. Anant said...

    Gosh, I did not think this would become such a major subject. I am talking from the point of view of common consciousness and not that of an expert or a historian. To me HH is one of the major defense contractors in the world. Now I am finding out that this is not really true, etc.. As I have said repeatedly, these are only my personal views regarding approaching (one time?) defense contractors or they progeny or foundations they haves set up for betterment of mankind and what not, for research. I may have qualms about it, but others may not. The main point which I was somehow trying to put across which has got completely lose, is whether or not money is the only (main?) thing that is keeping our research behind, and that too in the sense of individuals grants and lack thereof. This is the point that I would like to see debated. Of course one may then keep on arguing that Atomic Energy in India is also defense related, and so where do we draw the line? I must say I really have no idea. After all we all do live in the real world and we have to get on with it. Some decide to draw the line here, others there. Now let me try again: is the absence of huge individual grants the only thing that is keeping us behind (if at all?). Love, Anant