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HHMI Launches Documentary Film Unit to Create Science Features for Television

Summary

HHMI is launching a $60 million documentary film initiative that aims to bring high quality, compelling science features to television.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is launching a $60 million documentary film initiative that aims to bring high-quality, compelling science features to television. Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education, unveiled the project today at the “Summit on Science, Entertainment, and Education” in Los Angeles.

“Film is the most powerful medium for bringing ideas, knowledge, and stories to life and communicating them to any audience,” says Carroll, who was speaking at the meeting sponsored by the Science & Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences. “HHMI can harness that power by producing high-quality, compelling documentary films on scientific topics.”

Compelling films have the power to inspire people and nourish curiosity—which also happen to be central goals of our science education program.

Robert Tjian

There is a great need for more high-quality science programs on television, Carroll says, and HHMI’s work in science research and education puts it in a unique position to help fill some of that demand. A biomedical research organization, HHMI employs more than 380 of the nation’s top scientists—including 13 Nobel Prize winners—who are working on some of the world’s most challenging scientific problems. The Institute also spends more than $70 million a year supporting science education at the K-12, undergraduate, and graduate or professional level.

“Compelling films have the power to inspire people and nourish curiosity – which also happen to be central goals of our science education program,” says HHMI President Robert Tjian.

The Science & Entertainment Exchange was begun by the National Academy to provide entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging story lines. Friday’s invitation-only summit brings together film industry representatives, educators, and scientists to think creatively about the ways in which film, television, and video games can empower student learning in the sciences.

HHMI has funded television projects on a more modest scale in the past—including support for the public broadcasting series NOVA scienceNOW and science reporting on PBS NewsHour—but this is its first foray into the documentary film arena. The HHMI film division’s first priority will be to tell intriguing science stories that will grab the viewer, Carroll says. They will cover all areas of science, especially biology and medicine, but will go beyond the work of HHMI’s own researchers. “What do good teaching, good communication of science, and good entertainment all have in common? They are all about good storytelling,” he says. “HHMI is entering the storytelling community with this initiative. We want to work with the best storytellers and the best scientists to bring great stories about science and scientists to large audiences.”

Carroll compared HHMI’s role in developing documentary films to that of the National Geographic Society, whose exploration and research arm has long been an important patron of documentary filmmakers. “As a science and education organization, we don’t have some of the pressures on us that [television] networks do, and we have direct connections to the educational and scientific communities,” he says. “We have our ear a little closer to the rail of emerging stories in biology or biomedicine because we are in that world.”

This project is a passion for Carroll, a molecular biologist, HHMI investigator, and author who has a longstanding interest in public science education. In addition to writing several popular books on science, most recently Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Origins of Species, and a regular column for The New York Times (also called “Remarkable Creatures”), he has participated in numerous television documentaries. Carroll, who took over as HHMI’s vice president for science education in September 2010, is also a regular speaker at conferences for K-12 and college-level biology teachers.

The Institute’s first step is to recruit an executive producer who will work with Carroll to define and direct the documentary film initiative. The program will be based at HHMI’s campus in Chevy Chase, Md.

Although Carroll has not identified specific film topics at this time, he says that most scientists and science educators agree that the public would benefit from access to engaging materials that would provide better insight into how science works, how evidence is weighed and tested, and how conclusions are reached. “We want the public to understand the process of science and gain an appreciation for it so they can trust its results and use them in their daily lives,” he says.

HHMI will collaborate with broadcasters and other partners to develop, produce, and disseminate programs and specials. “We are looking forward to working with organizations that will help us bring great stories to large audiences.” Carroll noted, however, that the Institute is not accepting film proposals at this time.

The documentary film initiative also includes a major educational component. The subjects will be chosen based on their potential to become a compelling story, but HHMI’s staff—primarily its Educational Resources Group—will work hand-in-hand with the executive producer and filmmakers to repackage the film footage into materials that can be used by teachers and students at both the high school and college level.

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The Howard Hughes Medical Institute plays a powerful role in advancing scientific research and education in the United States. Its scientists, located across the country and around the world, have made important discoveries that advance both human health and our fundamental understanding of biology. The Institute also aims to transform science education into a creative, interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of real research. For more information, visit www.hhmi.org.

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