“I didn’t need to think about the offer very long,” Tjian says with a laugh, recalling his initial shock. HHMI was offering to bankroll Tjian’s research on DNA transcription for a minimum of seven years, and possibly for the rest of his career. And he wasn’t the only one. As the nation’s largest private sponsor of biomedical research, the institute spent about $200 million last year supporting senior investigators like Tjian.

After becoming a Hughes Institute investigator, Tjian relinquished many of his federal and outside grants. But he hasn’t missed the weeks of proposal writing and red tape. ‘It’s cut down on my headaches a lot,” he says about his new source of funding. “I feel I’m in a privileged situations”

Many scientists have heard—and fantasized—about the institute’s generosity toward its researchers. But until recently HHMJ investigators belonged to distinct research groups at medical centers. Five years ago Howard Hughes...

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