Institute Launches Documentary Film Unit

HHMI announced the launch of a $60 million documentary film initiative.

At a meeting in February that brought together scientists, educators, and entertainment industry professionals, HHMI announced the launch of a $60 million documentary film initiative that aims to bring engaging science features to television.

“Film is the most powerful medium for bringing ideas, knowledge, and stories to life and communicating them to any audience,” says Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education, who spoke at the meeting. “HHMI can harness that power by producing high-quality, compelling documentary films on scientific topics.”

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 priority will be to tell intriguing science stories that grab the viewer, Carroll says. They will cover all areas of science, especially biology and medicine, and will go beyond the work of HHMI’s own researchers.

The institute will collaborate with broadcasters and other partners to develop, produce, and disseminate programs and specials internationally. The documentary film initiative also includes a major educational component. Subjects will be chosen based on their potential for powerful narrative, 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 levels.

“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.

Carroll, who took over as HHMI’s vice president for science education in 2010, has a longstanding interest in public science education. In addition to writing several popular books on science and a regular column for The New York Times, he has participated in numerous television documentaries.

Although Carroll has not identified specific film topics, he says that most scientists and science educators agree that the public would benefit from access to engaging materials that 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.