What is the HHMI investigator program?
This is HHMI's flagship research program, in which leading scientists—called investigators—direct Institute laboratories on the campuses of universities, research institutes, and medical centers throughout the United States. Since the early 1990s, the Institute has selected HHMI investigators through rigorous national competitions. These scientists receive renewable, five-year appointments as employees of HHMI.
By appointing scientists as Hughes investigators—rather than awarding them research grants—HHMI is guided by the principle of “people, not projects.” HHMI investigators are free to explore and, if necessary, to change direction in their research. Moreover, they have support to follow their ideas through to fruition—even if that process takes a very long time.
Currently, there are about 330 HHMI investigators, all of whom are based at their home institutions, serving as faculty members and typically leading a research group of 10–25 students, postdoctoral associates, and technicians. Because HHMI is classified as a medical research organization under the Internal Revenue Code, HHMI investigators and their laboratory personnel are Institute employees, supported by staff at regional field offices and at HHMI headquarters.
What kind of research do HHMI investigators conduct?
HHMI scientists represent a wide range of biomedical research disciplines—from chemistry, neuroscience, and bioinformatics to structural biology, immunology, and clinical genetics. They include mathematicians, physicists, engineers, physicians, chemists, and classically trained molecular and cellular biologists. Using in vitro systems, model organisms, and even human subjects, they exploit a range of technologies to seek insights into human disease and fundamental biological questions.
In the current group of HHMI investigators, 15 have been honored with the Nobel Prize—their pioneering work includes discoveries of odorant receptors and organization of the olfactory system, research on the structure and function of cellular channels, identification of key genes regulating organ development and programmed cell death, and discoveries of how changes in synaptic function in the nervous system are central for learning and memory.
Major advances in recent years have also included identification of a compound in clinical trials that has successfully treated patients whose chronic myeloid leukemia failed to respond to standard treatment with Gleevec; development of gene microarrays and “protein chips,” enabling researchers to simultaneously measure the function of thousands of genes or proteins; and creation of human embryonic stem cell lines made available for researchers worldwide.
What is the relationship between the HHMI investigator program and the Janelia Farm Research Campus?
The Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, expands the Institute's research program and complements the investigator program by providing a unique environment for small research teams. Scientists at Janelia Farm are focusing on two research areas: identifying the general principles that guide how neuronal circuits process information in addition to developing imaging technologies and computational methods for image data analysis.
How often does the Institute select HHMI investigators?
Selection of new investigators usually occurs periodically through open competitions. The Institute solicits applications from researchers at universities, medical schools, and other research institutions across the United States, with the aim of identifying individuals who have the potential to make significant contributions to science. To maximize the impact of HHMI's investigator program on the biomedical sciences and to capitalize on new opportunities that may arise, competitions sometimes focus on a particular research area or investigator career stage.
How are applicants evaluated?
In appointing investigators, the Institute seeks talented and productive scientists who identify and pursue significant biological questions and who push their chosen field into new areas of inquiry, develop new tools and methods that enable creative experimental approaches, and forge links between basic biology and medicine.
Applicants are evaluated by review committees of distinguished scientists consisting largely of current and past members of the Institute's Medical Advisory and Scientific Review Boards and by HHMI's scientific staff. At the end of the process, the most highly rated applicants are invited to become HHMI investigators. Those who accept are appointed for five-year terms, which may be renewed after a rigorous review process.
What is the relationship between HHMI and its host institutions?
HHMI and its host institutions collaborate in the pursuit of science through long-term agreements. Once selected, investigators continue to be based at their host institutions but become HHMI employees and derive their entire salaries and benefits from the Institute. The collaboration agreement also provides for payments to the host institution for the use of laboratory space.
HHMI investigators retain their faculty positions and continue to participate in teaching and other professional activities at their university or research institute. Their research groups, which typically include students, postdoctoral associates, and technicians (some of whom are HHMI employees) are supported by staff at regional HHMI field offices and HHMI headquarters
How is appointment as an HHMI investigator different from receiving a research grant from the National Institutes of Health or another funding source?
By employing investigators and providing direct administrative support to its laboratories, HHMI engages in the direct conduct of research rather than providing funding that is administered by grantee institutions. In addition, HHMI's “people, not projects” principle means that investigators' five-year appointments ensure long-term funding with no requirement of annual reports or renewals. Investigators are thus free to follow their scientific instincts and to pursue new opportunities as soon as they arise. Investigators have the freedom to explore and, if necessary, to change the direction of their research—sometimes dramatically. Moreover, they have support to follow their ideas through to fruition—even if that process takes a very long time.
Do HHMI investigators receive outside support for their research from other agencies?
While the Institute itself does not accept funds from any outside agency, HHMI encourages its investigators to seek competitive research grant support. External funding provides flexibility to support certain activities that the Institute is not able to or does not provide for and also allows an investigator to phase fully into such funding in the event that he or she ceases to be employed by HHMI.
Do HHMI investigators form research collaborations with or consult for for-profit companies?
The core principle in all of HHMI's policies is that science comes first. HHMI believes that interactions between academic and industrial research can promote useful innovations, such as faster development of products that ease suffering and save lives. Faster commercialization of research is important, but it must not come at the expense of academic vitality and integrity.
HHMI's policies seek a balance between enabling positive interaction with industry colleagues and minimizing potential distractions and conflicts of interest. HHMI investigators regularly collaborate with companies and work together to pursue a shared scientific interest, and each party to the collaboration bears its own cost of the research. Investigators also work with companies as panelists on scientific advisory boards, founders of start-up companies, and speakers at company events.
Commercially sponsored research—industry funding under terms that would give the funder rights to intellectual property developed in an HHMI laboratory—is not permitted under HHMI’s current policies.
How are HHMI investigators reviewed?
The renewal of an investigator's five-year appointment depends on a rigorous peer-review process that centers on an evaluation of the originality and creativity of the investigator's work relative to others in the field as well as on the investigator's plan for future research. Those investigators whose appointments are not renewed are phased out over a period of several years to facilitate their ability to obtain other funding for their research.
Do HHMI investigators engage in any activities other than research?
HHMI investigators are expected to devote at least 75 percent of their total effort to the direct conduct of biomedical research. Investigators may spend up to 25 percent of their effort on other activities, such as teaching, consulting, and administrative duties.
How does HHMI handle patents and licenses?
HHMI encourages the prompt transfer of the results of its investigators' research to practical application and recognizes that patenting and licensing of inventions are important steps in this process. To this end, HHMI assigns the intellectual property rights of an investigator to his or her university, which makes decisions regarding patenting, licensing, and commercialization of inventions. HHMI also expects that unique research resources arising in HHMI laboratories will be made available to the scientific research community for free or at a reasonable cost.