Howard Hughes Network Expands by a Big Leap

The rising stock market will be floating more biomedical research. With its endowment soaring, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) of Chevy Chase, Maryland, is expanding its support for scientists at universities and labs around the country. Today, the institute announced that 70 biomedical researchers--the largest class ever--will be joining its elite ranks.

This expansion--which embraces 10 new research sites and raises HHMI's total number of investigators by 25% to more than 330--has been made possible by the phenomenal growth of HHMI's endowment. Its portfolio has skyrocketed to a value of nearly $9.7 billion this year. By agreement with tax authorities, HHMI must spend 3.5% of its endowment each year on medical research by its employees. Its current budget is $455 million, of which $338 million pays for research, focusing on five main areas: cell biology, genetics, immunology, neuroscience, and structural biology. Hughes also supports a large grants program ($86 million this year) on science education.

The research stipends, which are good for 5 or 7 years, are awarded competitively. Last May, HHMI invited more than 200 research centers to propose scientists for Hughes funding. They nominated 370 candidates. Then panels of extramural scientists identified 70 finalists who were offered Hughes jobs in April. In the past, HHMI's average annual cost per investigator has been about $680,000 (salary plus support for the lab, including students), but HHMI President Purnell Choppin says that the size of awards varies so much that it's impossible to put a figure on a "typical" award. Those who accept the offers will become joint employees of HHMI and their own institution.

The Hughes award makes concentrating on research much easier, says Simon John, a glaucoma expert at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and an HHMI grantee. Because HHMI guarantees support for at least 5 years, John expects to spend far less time on proposal writing. As a result, he says, "I will do more experiments."

The full list of new HHMI investigators is available online