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As a long-time HHMI investigator, I had great appreciation for all that had been accomplished under the leadership of Purnell W. Choppin, the man I was about to succeed. I thought—certainly at the time—that I understood the opportunities ahead. Yet, the journey has been more surprising, fascinating, and demanding than I ever could have anticipated in May 1999. I know that my successor, Robert Tjian, can look forward to a similarly challenging and rewarding journey during his tenure.
So let's step back briefly to that moment in the auditorium—the scene of so many investigator meetings, the backdrop for the Holiday Lectures on Science, a space now named in memory of HHMI's legendary chief scientific officer, W. Maxwell Cowan. With the benefit of hindsight, the words with which I described HHMI's impact on my own research could just as easily apply to the role of the Institute within the broader scientific community. As I said at the time, “Howard Hughes has allowed us to go into some new directions that we otherwise wouldn't have been able to. In fact, I think really it is more the other way around. I almost felt a responsibility to go in some new directions because we had the advantage of not having to rely on traditional sources of funding.”
The responsibility to experiment has been a recurring theme of the past decade of my leadership. But before I mention a few of the Institute's recent experiments, I need to say that we experiment within the confines of a set of values—including freedom, flexibility, creativity, and integrity—that define HHMI's science-based culture.
These values have never been more important. The public has begun to express deep concern about the loss of objectivity that can occur at the intersection of science and commerce. At HHMI, we have remained tough-minded about Institute policies that reinforce our independence from company-funded research. Also, during this event-filled decade, the nation has twice endured periods of great financial upheaval. With the government's attention focused on issues related to national security, we have seen the impact of continued fiscal and political pressure on federal research agencies, particularly the National Institutes of Health (NIH). HHMI is hardly immune from these currents. Many of our investigators also conduct research that is supported by the NIH, and they are based at medical schools, research universities, and institutes that are best served by steady year-to-year resources. The Institute's commitment to plan for long-term, consistent funding serves our scientists well.
Given the opportunity to examine our own programs and activities in the light of pressing national needs, I have worked with Peter Bruns to launch several new educational initiatives. The goal has been to expand opportunity in key areas: to promising college students who come from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds, to graduate students who want to study across disciplinary boundaries or to incorporate medicine into their Ph.D. studies, to physician-scientists at a variety of career stages who seek to combine research with clinical practice. On the biomedical research front, I first worked with vice presidents Gerry Rubin and David Clayton to expand the cadre of patient-oriented physician-scientists within the ranks of our investigators and later with Jack Dixon to open the investigator selection process to direct application from scientists. We have also taken steps to ensure that the results of our investigators' discoveries will be broadly shared within the scientific community.
One of the Institute's most visible experiments is the Janelia Farm Research Campus, which opened in 2006 along the Potomac River in Ashburn, Virginia. The notion of creating a freestanding campus with a distinct scientific culture arose in conversations I had with my colleagues Gerry Rubin and David Clayton in 1999. We touched on many subjects during those conversations, most notably the HHMI investigator program. That program seemed to be just the right size—a much larger program might have reduced quality and been difficult to manage—so we concluded that additional Institute resources should be invested in a novel direction.
According to our analysis, the research opportunities most challenged at U.S. academic institutions were in the area of interdisciplinary research—bringing physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering to bear on problems of biology. By building a research facility without departmental barriers, we thought we could catalyze such collaboration. As we looked for a suitable piece of property, we refined the scientific challenges that an interdisciplinary campus might address. The initial goals of what is now the Janelia Farm Research Campus are to understand the neural circuits that enable complex behavior and to create new imaging and computational technologies. Already, the campus has become a hive of activity for the resident scientists as well as for our investigators and their collaborators from around the world. Janelia Farm has added to—rather than subtracted from—the vibrant culture of HHMI's investigator program and that, for me, is an important touchstone.
Photo: Erika Larsen