photograph by James Kegley

Fundamentals for Uncertain Times

It doesn’t take a PhD to uncover evidence of unease in the scientific community. Peruse the news and commentary section of any scientific journal. View the daily back and forth on Twitter among scientists and journalists who follow the issues. Check out the headlines in national newspapers.

The challenges are numerous. Federal budgets are constrained, with government spending for science expected to remain flat or decline. Partisan gridlock—accompanied by the ongoing potential for government shutdowns—generates even more turmoil. The health of the overall economy is fragile, placing pressure on the ability of other entities—for example, nonprofit organizations, venture capitalists, and pharmaceutical companies—to make additional investments in research.

The value of science is questioned by significant segments of the American populace. They are not inclined to agree with what many scientists accept as settled fact—from the tenets of evolution to the evidence that human activity contributes to climate change and the value of vaccines in preventing disease. While opinion surveys consistently show that medical research is highly valued, the public also wants to see a return on investment of their tax dollars: effective drugs for cancer and other devastating diseases, answers about the apparent rise in the incidence of autism, and unambiguous guidance about what to eat, for starters.

No wonder many established scientists feel beleaguered and those at early stages in their careers—graduate students and postdocs among them—are left questioning their long-term career prospects. Indeed, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) generated passionate commentary from all sectors of the scientific community when it asked the provocative question, “How do you think we should manage science in fiscally challenging times?” The question is an important one and the range of potential responses will have a profound impact on the nation for many years to come.

Two attributes distinguish HHMI from other organizations that are understress in the current environment: independence and agility.

Robert Tjian

As a federal agency accountable for the expenditure of taxpayer dollars, NIH is under pressure to demonstrate impact and value—at speed. That’s clearly a driver behind the efforts of NIH Director Francis Collins to create the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences as a means of giving the NIH a direct, substantial role in speeding drug development and other translational research activities. Whether this approach will successfully engage scientists from academia, industry, and regulatory entities such as the Food and Drug Administration, and result in more rapid translation of basic science discoveries into useful therapies, remains an open question.

My colleagues and I at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have also been thinking deeply about how to manage our scientific portfolio during this time of economic uncertainty. We recognize that the performance of the endowment that fuels our research investments will likely fluctuate even as our scientists place greater reliance on the flexible support that funds some of their most creative work.

Two attributes distinguish HHMI from other organizations that are under stress in the current environment: independence and agility. Our commitment to basic research remains unwavering. Yet we also have the freedom to grow more slowly and deliberately in the coming years, to ensure that we are giving the very best people the level of support they need—for example, by managing the timing and size of future competitions. We also have the opportunity to experiment with smaller programs that extend the reach of HHMI’s scientific community. A good example is the Hughes Collaborative Innovation Award program. Given the success of the first round of projects, we’ve announced a second competition. Our goal is to identify high-risk proposals that bring together a diverse group of collaborators focused on solving important scientific problems. The group assembled by Peter Walter at the University of California, San Francisco, for example, aims to identify clinically useful compounds that affect how cells manage unfolded proteins, specifically in the cancer multiple myeloma.

At the same time, we are making important changes to policies that govern the interactions of our scientists with start-up companies and venture capital firms—the policies have been streamlined, simplified, and made more flexible. These revisions balance our interest in preserving the integrity of HHMI research with our view that start-ups can play an important role in translating basic discoveries into effective therapies and diagnostics. I believe that basic research in the life sciences is a powerful engine of innovation that drives our economy and enhances our standard of living. It’s another way to look at how HHMI’s efforts to develop sophisticated tools for digging deeply into basic biological processes are on a critical path toward improving people’s lives.

Scientist Profile

University of California, Berkeley
Biochemistry, Molecular Biology
University of California, San Francisco
Cell Biology, Biochemistry