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CBS reporter Leslie Stahl visited HHMI headquarters in 2003 to interview Tom Cech for a 60 Minutes story about the Institute (left). Tom Cech presided over the 2003 groundbreaking of the Janelia Farm Research Campus. Since its 2006 opening, he has been a regular visitor for science meetings, workshops, and public lectures (right).
One area where HHMI charted an independent course concerns research involving human embryonic stem cells. HHMI enabled its investigators to work outside the constraints of a national policy that limited the stem cell lines that could be used and barred the development of new cell lines in federally funded research. We made our decision in consultation with outside advisors, including ethicists, and with the support of our Trustees. The care with which HHMI proceeded made the initiative no less bold. Our stem cell investigators, who aim to cure some of our most devastating diseases, have established new cell lines and have published important, sometimes surprising, findings on tissue development and regeneration.
Back in the 1980s, HHMI president Donald Fredrickson believed the Institute should locate its headquarters “inside the Beltway” so that it would be proximate to the NIH and the officials (elected and otherwise) who make important decisions about science policy in the United States. The decision to base HHMI in the Washington, D.C., area was prescient and has facilitated my interactions with the National Academy of Sciences, NIH, National Science Foundation, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the numerous scientific societies headquartered in Washington. Often we find ourselves facing the same issues about biomedical research in the United States. These issues include the challenges early career scientists face and the cumulative effect of conservative funding decisions on innovation in America.
Last year, the Institute launched a new open-application competition to identify talented researchers at the very beginning of their independent careers, between years two and six of their first academic appointments. We're betting that unfettered financial support to these Early Career Scientists, coupled with the new interactions they'll forge as part of the HHMI community, will have a big impact on their ability to develop full-fledged research programs.
This issue of the HHMI Bulletin highlights another response by HHMI to the current research environment. Jack Dixon, our chief scientific officer, has led the creation of the Collaborative Innovation Awards. Using HHMI investigators as the nucleus, we challenged them to assemble teams of scientists to tackle transformational research projects that are too big or too risky for any single laboratory to handle. If a quarter of these efforts succeed, HHMI will have done something worthwhile. That's the whole point: we don't want to be assured that these teams of scientists will solve the problem; we do want to ensure that they have the means to explore big questions.
As I prepare to return to my laboratory at the University of Colorado at Boulder—to focus more on some scientific questions of my own—I am deeply conscious of the fact that the Institute's successes of the past decade reflect the contributions made by HHMI employees around the country, the members of the Medical Advisory Board and other advisory groups, and, most particularly, the Trustees. Led by Hanna H. Gray, the Trustees have ensured that HHMI remains true to its mission as a medical research organization and lives up to the highest standards of excellence. Thank you for the privilege of leading this great organization.
Photos: Paul Fetters