Funding models: People over projects

Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Wellcome Trust award individual investigators long-term funding that is not tied to a specific research project. The goal is to encourage investigators to pursue new and sometimes controversial research that might not be funded by a traditional peer-review system.

In 2011, Howard Hughes awarded $825 million in biomedical research funding, while Wellcome awarded £378 million ($587 million) in science funding.

Howard Hughes supports about 330 independent researchers as HHMI Investigators at institutions throughout the U.S., providing operational funding, equipment and salary support.

The non-profit also funds an additional 45 Early Career Scientists, who are eligible to enter the program with 2-5 years experience in a tenure-track position.

Instead of submitting a proposal describing a specific project, applicants are required to write a 3,000-word essay describing their ongoing and future research plans, a summary of their major research achievements, a statement of how Howard Hughes funding will enhance their research program, and a description of their five most significant publications.

The institute recruits a panel of distinguished scientists to review the applications, and semifinalists are invited to present their research in person. Those chosen as HHMI Investigators are funded for five years, and about 80% are reappointed following a rigorous review process.

Early Career Scientists are funded for six years, after which they can apply to become HHMI Investigators.

Howard Hughes CSO Jack Dixon said the amount of time the institute spends selecting and reviewing its candidates could not scale to an organization the size of NIH. Even to double the number of investigators, he said, "the review process would have to change in a substantial way. I've been doing this for six years, and I have been at every person's review."

The National Institute of Biological Sciences (NIBS) in Beijing, which was founded by Howard Hughes Investigator Xiaodong Wang, is modeled after the U.S. institute (see BioCentury, Nov. 15, 2010).

Wellcome Trust has recently increased its long-term, individual-focused funding. While the charity has long provided research fellowships to postdocs, it used to fund established investigators through project-specific grants. In 2009, the organization announced it would stop offering project grants, and instead offer investigator awards, which fund tenure-track investigators up to £450,000 over seven years to pursue independent research.

Awards are made at two levels. One level is new investigators who are no more than five years into their first academic appointment. The other award level is to senior investigators.

- Chris Cain