• April 20, 2014

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Offers $150-Million in New Awards

As university researchers confront the news of another tight year in federal financial support for science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has some consolation for a small number of them: a new round of its primary award competition.

The Hughes institute announced on Wednesday that it was accepting applications for up to 25 new HHMI investigator positions, worth a total of about $150-million over five years and beginning in 2015.

Although small compared with the $30-billion annual budget of the National Institutes of Health, the new competition "should give some hope that there's multiple sources beyond the government" for financing medical research, said Barbara J. Graves, a senior scientific officer at Hughes.

Unlike the main category of NIH grant, which is based on the quality of a scientific proposal, Hughes largely bases its decisions on the quality of the scientist. Hughes awards run five years, with the expectation of a five-year renewal, for a total length about three times that of most NIH grants.

With this round, Hughes is repeating at least two approaches it introduced in its previous round, in 2012: It plans to keep the new group small, similar to the 27 winners announced last time, and it plans to conclude the competition with in-person presentations by several dozen finalists.

"It really puts the person on the paper that you've been reading," Ms. Graves said of the brief presentations and question-and-answer sessions that finalists hold with staff evaluators at the Hughes headquarters, in Chevy Chase, Md.

At its most-recent general competitions before 2012—those held in 2005 and 2008—­Hughes selected 40 to 50 new investigators each time, a field too large to allow the in-person screening, she said. Hughes is meeting its goal of keeping more than 300 general investigators on its payroll, and it now needs the 2015 class to replace those whose award terms will have expired by then, she said. Applications are due by June 3, and Hughes expects more than 1,000 entries.

The announcement came just two days after leaders in Congress reached agreement on a federal budget for the 2014 fiscal year that would set the NIH's budget at $30-billion, or about 2.3 percent below the level of 2012—before the time when governmentwide sequestration cuts took effect. The 2014 amount for the NIH is 3.5 percent above 2013 levels, which isn't even enough to make up for inflation from 2012 to 2014, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Hughes institute, meanwhile, had an endowment of $16.9-billion at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, with an increase of about $1.1-billion from the previous year. It has financed more than $7-billion in scientific research and education since 2004.

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