Going Green: New Program Provides Vital Support for Plant Scientists

A new HHMI program will provide vital funding for plant research.

HHMI and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (GBMF) announced in September a new research program that will provide critical support to some of the nation’s most innovative plant scientists. The institutions, which are collaborating for the first time, will invest a combined total of $75 million in the program over the next five years.

HHMI and GBMF will select as many as 15 investigators working in a range of scientific disciplines relevant to plant sciences. The national competition, which runs until November 9, 2010, is open to researchers who have managed their own lab for at least four years. The scientists will receive an initial five-year appointment to HHMI and the support necessary to move their research in creative, new directions. Appointments may be renewed for additional five-year terms, contingent on a successful scientific review.

Despite the central role plants play in maintaining human health and in healthcare, basic research in the plant sciences historically has been underfunded. The bulk of the United States Department of Agriculture funding has not gone to competitive basic research and the Biology Directorate program at the National Science Foundation is relatively small, with few dedicated programs in fundamental plant biology. Furthermore, plant science researchers receive a small percentage of funding from the National Institutes of Health.

“There is no question that plant scientists have a tremendous potential to help address—and possibly alleviate—some of society’s most pressing concerns, such as food production, human health, protection of the environment, and renewable energy,” says HHMI President Robert Tjian. “We are very fortunate to have found in the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation an institution that believes, as we do, that we must act now to do more to nurture and support the bold ideas of the best plant scientists.”

Since its creation in 2000, GBMF, headquartered in Palo Alto, California, has focused on supporting environmental conservation, non-biomedical science, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The path that led to the HHMI–GBMF collaboration began in 2008, when the scientific leadership of HHMI met with the Institute’s medical advisory board to brainstorm ideas for new research initiatives. A plant science research program emerged as a top contender. When Robert Tjian became president of HHMI in 2009, a plant sciences initiative rose to the top of his list of priority items. Furthermore, Tjian, who formerly served as chairman of the scientific advisory board at GBMF, suggested that HHMI and GBMF explore a partnership to invest jointly in plant sciences research.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with HHMI to support current and emerging leaders in the plant sciences field,” says Steven J. McCormick, President of GBMF. “Our increasingly interconnected world, and the challenges and opportunities it faces, oblige us to seek shared approaches with both grantees and other funders. Through collaboration and alignment of resources with an exceptional partner like HHMI, we will have a far greater impact in the fields where we engage.”

HHMI and GBMF believe the establishment of this joint program will underscore the importance of enhanced support for plant sciences research and can be leveraged to increase others’ interest in this field.

“Plants play a critical role in sustaining the health of the planet,” says Vicki L. Chandler, chief program officer for science at GBMF. “We believe that generating fundamental new knowledge about how plants function and relate to Earth’s ecology, biodiversity, and climate—and to human health and well-being—will ‘move the needle’ in the plant sciences and will cross disciplinary lines, impacting other fields as well.”

Detailed information about the competition—including a list of eligible institutions and access to the secure application site—may be found at the HHMI website.