Robert Tjian

Robert Tjian

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Q&A: Outgoing HHMI chief reflects on leading $19 billion biomedical charity

Biochemist Robert Tjian announced this week that he will step down as head of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at the end of 2016. Tjian is only the third president of the Chevy Chase, Maryland–based philanthropy, which with an $18.6 billion endowment is the largest private funder of academic biomedical research in the United States. It is best known for supporting more than 330 HHMI investigators based at major U.S. universities.

Despite working with a flat budget, Tjian has managed to launch a range of initiatives, including new support for early-career scientists who have been hurt by declining budgets at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). He doubled the number of postdocs HHMI funds, revived graduate student awards with an emphasis on foreign students, and refocused HHMI’s international programs on younger U.S.-trained scientists. He has revamped undergraduate education programs and added a new public outreach venture, a nonprofit science documentary company. Tjian also oversaw new collaborations with other foundations, including a plant science program and the startup of eLife, an open access journal that, for now, charges no author fees.

Tjian, who turns 66 next month, says he plans to leave after nearly 8 years because he has done much of what he set out to do. He’s also eager to return full time to his HHMI-supported lab at the University of California, Berkeley, which has shifted its work on gene regulation from wet biochemistry to imaging single molecules in living cells. “There’s a lot of exciting things going on and I feel like I’m missing out,” he says.

Tjian spoke briefly with ScienceInsider. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What are some of most important things you've done at HHMI?

A: The investigator program is the bedrock of the institute. We've done some tweaking around the edges, like more frequent competitions so that people out there don't feel like they've missed out.

We’ve instituted these 5-year voluntary phase-out awards for really senior, very accomplished researchers deciding to move away from the Hughes. Instead of coming to a review, you can say, “I’m going to take destiny in my own hands and phase out of the Hughes.” Some people have other funding, other people decide this is a good time to go do something different.

It's been amazing how many people have taken that option. Because being a Hughes investigator, you're constantly competing with yourself. You have to perform better than you did the past 5 years. All of us, at some stage of our career, get to the stage of not doing that anymore. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing really good science, but you can't keep beating yourself. This [is] a really nice way of, instead of being cut off at the knees, this is a more dignified way to go out.

Q: What do you think of NIH’s proposal for an emeritus award that senior scientists would use to wind down their lab?

A: I don't think it’s a bad idea. Because it's a tough decision, closing down your lab. A 5-year phase-out is a gentle mechanism to shift more of the funding overall to new investigators.

Q: How are things going at Janelia Research Campus, HHMI’s lab in Ashburn, Virginia?

A: It’s still a project in progress. I think it’s going very, very well. The only thing I’ve done to try to help [Janelia director] Gerry [Rubin] is, we’ve expanded the type of scientists a little bit. We’re still fully focused on neurobiology and imaging but we’ve hired people in structural biology, particularly in cryo-EM [electron microscopy]. We’ve also hired developmental neurobiologists and a neuro cell biologist.

We're trying to figure out how to make some of those amazing microscopes that have been built at Janelia available to scientists outside. We started this advanced imaging center with the [Gordon and Betty] Moore Foundation to have those machines accessible to outside users. We will do a similar thing for the really high-resolution cryo-EM microscopes.

Q: When you started eLife 3 years ago [with the Wellcome Trust and the Max Planck Society], people wondered if it would be just another open-access journal.

A: The most important thing that we did with eLife is not about open access, but the possibility of changing the editorial process. [Editor] Randy [Schekman] really has knocked it out of the park. You don't get four disparate reviews from four reviewers, but one consolidated review that is a collaborative effort so the author isn't stuck with being asked to do 98 different experiments. Talk to anybody who has sent a paper to eLife; that's why they really love it. Our submission rates have gone crazy. We're at more than 550 submissions a month. I think we're down to a 15% acceptance rate.

The other big thing is, we want to kill the journal impact factor. We tried to prevent people who do the impact factors from giving us one. They gave us one anyway a year earlier than they should have. Don't ask me what it is because I truly don't want to know and don't care.