photograph by James Kegley

Learn, Show, and Tell

More than two decades ago, as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute reorganized itself and entered a period of exponential growth in scientific research, the Institute also made a commitment to supporting programs in science education. It stemmed from a settlement with the Internal Revenue Service and resolved tax issues that had dogged the Institute during the life of its founder, Howard R. Hughes. HHMI agreed to spend an extra $100 million over a 10-year period on an activity related to its research mission but went beyond that commitment many years ago. Today, with total investments of more than $1 billion, programs in science education have become an integral part of our mission and culture.

As an avid tennis player who’s always seeking that elusive sweet spot on the tennis court, I can tell you that HHMI has found its educational “sweet spot” in programs aimed at undergraduate faculty and students. This spring, we announced our eighth undergraduate education competition—this one targeting colleges and universities that focus on undergraduates—and plan to award $60 million in new grants about a year from now. We are setting the bar high, asking our potential collaborators to think big and be creative. We have asked schools to unify their proposals around a single education objective, made it clear that we’ll reward those who partner with other institutions to create comprehensive programs, and set new expectations for schools that we’ve supported for many years.

It’s clear that HHMI’s educational commitment needs to extend beyond the classroom and laboratory to reach in new directions.

Robert Tjian

This is good, important work. But it’s clear that HHMI’s educational commitment needs to extend beyond the classroom and laboratory to reach in new directions. Under the leadership of Sean Carroll, who has been an HHMI investigator for many years and now heads our Department of Science Education, the Institute will launch a science documentary initiative. We will create high-quality programming and disseminate it internationally through television, classrooms, and other media. This initiative, still in the early stages of development, is important for science in America and around the world.

Science has gotten so complicated that many people have given up trying to make sense of the flood of information that comes their way. Conflicting claims, new information, and misuse of facts combine to create confusion among individuals who try to follow the public conversation about science. Has human activity contributed to climate change and what does that mean? Is mammography good or bad? How can we know that today’s miracle drug will be safe? How do living organisms evolve? These are big questions and worth understanding for nonscientists and scientists alike.

As scientists, we haven’t done a particularly good job of explaining what we do, how we do it, and why. We talk openly among ourselves about how discovery is an ongoing exercise in assessing and revising our understanding of the physical world. It also makes sense to us that our colleagues can reach certain conclusions about the world sometimes based on partial or fragmentary knowledge. We recognize that the weight of accumulated evidence has significance, even if a specific model, finding, or assumption is later found to be only partially correct. Yet keeping this sort of productive conversation inside the scientific community doesn’t have much of an impact—particularly because it can create the impression that we are smug about our own “superior” knowledge and erect unintended barriers that can often alienate nonscientists and further widen the gulf of trust.

HHMI has had some limited experience with television programming. We have helped fund the public broadcasting series NOVA scienceNOW and provided modest support for the new science reporting unit on the PBS NewsHour. And we have long used video as a tool for expanding knowledge through our popular Holiday Lectures on Science, which provide in-depth information on topics important to high school teachers and students. This year, we’ll tackle human evolution with Holiday Lectures from a trio of experts on October 6 and 7.

We expect that the new documentary initiative will significantly extend our science education outreach on a larger scale—certainly on more screens—and at a level of quality on par with HHMI’s program in scientific research. Carroll and his colleagues aim to create television programming built around compelling stories of scientists’ lives and discoveries, stories with the power to inspire and nourish curiosity. As an accomplished author of popular science books and a columnist for The New York Times, Carroll knows how to spin a lively tale that’s scientifically accurate and opens a window into the essence of the scientific process. But we hope these documentaries and related educational materials will do something more: Show how science is done, how experiments test ideas about the natural world, how accumulated data can lead us to insights that make it possible to distinguish observable truth from opinion or belief. That’s an investment we feel an obligation to make.

Scientist Profile

University of California, Berkeley
Biochemistry, Molecular Biology