Choppin On Hughes And Its New Ventures

Virologist Purnell W Choppin (pronounced "Sho-pan") took office September 1 as president of Howard Hughes Medical Institute at a time of great ferment. His predecessor, Donald S. Fredrickson, deported after a dispute involving controversial management and spending practices [see THE SCIENTIST, June 1, 1987, p. 2, and June 29, p. 1]. At the some time, as port of its agreement last spring with the Internal Revenue Service, HHMI has agreed to increase its financial awards, by on average of at leas

Jan 25, 1988
Tabitha Powledge
Virologist Purnell W Choppin (pronounced "Sho-pan") took office September 1 as president of Howard Hughes Medical Institute at a time of great ferment. His predecessor, Donald S. Fredrickson, deported after a dispute involving controversial management and spending practices [see THE SCIENTIST, June 1, 1987, p. 2, and June 29, p. 1]. At the some time, as port of its agreement last spring with the Internal Revenue Service, HHMI has agreed to increase its financial awards, by on average of at least $50 million a year for a decade. In a major new thrust for Hughes, part of the funds will go to support graduate and undergraduate scientific education. The institute plans to build a conference center and office building in a Washington suburb, drawing fire from neighborhood groups.

Q: What effect has the October stock market crash had on HHMI?

CHOPPIN: Thats a complicated question, which I’ll answer by saying it has probably had less effect on us than on many private philanthropic organizations because of the nature of our endowment.

When the Hughes Aircraft Company, which was the only asset of the Hughes Institute, was sold to General Motors, the agreement was $2.7 billion in cash or cash equivalents, and 50 million shares of a new chas of General Motors stock. There was a complicated agreement with GM that included a guarantee in the price of the stock. The guarantee is that, if the stock is not selling at $60 on December 31, 1989, GM will make up the difference. So we have an underlying guaranteed price for the shares of GM stock that we own.

On the other hand, that stock pays less of a dividend than many other classes of GM stock, so we have to finance most of our operations out of the other part of our endowment. And a large majority of that is in bonds and fixed income, which have done relatively well. So it turns out that, because of the kind of portfolio we have, we had a small portion of our funds in equities, which meant we didn’t participate in the stock market losses as much as other institutions. On the other hand, we also didn’t participate as much as other institutions in the rise of the market. In short, at the moment, we do not visualize this having an impact on our funds.

Q:At all? You are not going to have less money to give out?

CHOPPIN: No. Obviously our total expenditures will depend on how well our portfolio does, and how well the economy does over the long haul. But what has happened so far has not had a material impact on our ability to support biomedical research and education.

Q:What’s your guess about that debacle’s effect on other funders, especially the government? It seems to me that budget-cutting is a fairly predictable consequence of the pressure to reduce the deficit. Is that going to have an impact on biomedical research funding overall?

CHOPPIN:That’s hard to say. I suppose that if there is substantial cutting of the budget, biomedical research will not be immune. On the other hand, it has occupied a relatively privileged position in the past, so we would certainly hope that the people involved in supporting research are also aware of ita tremendous importance. Our resources are significant, but they are little compared to what the NIH supports. The health of the biomedical research enterprise in this country is inseparable from the health of NIH. We’re a substantial player on the scene, but they are certainly the major force and it’s critical that they continue to be well-funded.

Q: If NIH has less to give, does that increase pressure on you, since there is a synergistic relationship?

CHOPPIN: I suppose that as funds get tighter there will be pressure on all the alternative sources. But the pressure will come only in more requests for our funds. I think the feeling our trustees have had has been to preserve the purchasing power of the endowment in perpetuity, but to expend the rest on biomedical research and higher education. Which means that, if we’re doing very well, the requirement to spend 3.5 percent of our income is a minimum, not a maximum.

The trustees have the feeling, I think, that if the purchasing power of the endowment can be preserved, it is adequate and there’s no wish to make it any bigger. So our intent is to spend everything we can. We would anticipate doing whatever we can to support research and education to the limit of what the investment people can provide.

A Louisiana native, Choppin received his medical degree from Louisiana State University in 1953. Arriving at the Rockefeller Institute (now University) in 1957 as a visiting investigator, he stayed on to become professor of medicine, vice president of academic programs and dean of graduate studies. In 1985, Choppin went to Hughes as a vice president and chief science officer. His research interests include; viral structure, multiplication and pathogenesis.

Choppin was interviewed November 8 at his office in Bethesda, Md., by Tabitha M. Powledge, editor of THE SCIENTIST. This is an edited version of their talk.

Q: The publicity surrounding Dr. Fredrickson’s departure must have been something of a jolt for an organization that is as accustomed to keeping a low profile as this one is. What kinds of problems did it create for HHMI?

CHOPPIN: It created a distraction to a certain extent but by and large you will find, if you talk to our investigators or to the people who are involved in the day-to-day activities of the institute, it did not have a major effect. Our activities really carried on in the scientific sphere without a hitch.

Q: It must have increased the stresses in an organization that is already under great streas because of its explosive growth. CHOPPIN: We have been and are still in an area of explosive growth, although hopefully we are now at a stage where the explosive growth is not disruptive. It cn be a more smooth curve, one that we can deal with. I think we all feel that that’s behind us and we redoing our bit and getting our job done.

Q: You are about to begin giving graduate fellowships for up to five years to 60 researchers a year. And the stipend is going to be twice what the National Institutes of Health pays.

CHOPPIN: The stipend in 1988, the first year of the program, will be $12,300, which is precisely the National Science Foundation stipend to students. That turns out to be higher than what the NIH pays its fellows, although I understand that NIH is increasing its stipend. On the other hand, NIH often pays tuition.

What we plan to do is to tailor our program along NSF lines. We will give a flat rate to the universities of $10,700. NSF gives $6,000 at the moment, I think, so we will be giving a bit more. In some schools that will cover tuition, in others it won’t. But this is the NSF pattern: Have a fixed sum rather than negotiate tuition with individual institutions.

The National Research Council, an organ of the National Academy of Sciences, runs the programs for the NSF and for the Ford Foundation. So it is handling the paper- work, the screening, putting together thereview panels that will rate the people—under a contract from us. We expect the awards to be made in the spring, in time for students to make their decisions about schools. We are quite confident that there will be a large response.

Unlike the NSF program—in fact, unlike most large graduate funding programs in this country—we are accepting applications from foreign students. Foreign students who are going to work in U.S. institutions may apply, and U.S. citizens can apply to work abroad. [Editor’s note: The application deadline for 1988 grants has passed.]

In addition, as a result or the agreement with the Internal Revenue Service in March, it is now possible for the first time for Hughes to support graduate students working in its own labs. So, in addition to our international competitive program for graduate students who may work anywhere, we will also be funding some graduate students in our own labs. They will be funded with our traditional medical research organization, not out of the approximately $50 million a year aver the next 10 years that we will be spending per our agreement with the IRS. Our projections are that by 1992 we will be supporting perhaps as many as 500 graduate students, in both our own labs and other labs—which is substantial.

Q: You’ve been credited with moving HHMI into structural biology, a particular interest of yours.

CHOPPIN: I have been directly involved in the implementation of that event, but I cannot take credit for suggesting originally that structural biology be part of Hughes’ operation. An ad hoc committee to explore the advisability of Hughes’ doing that had been started before I came on board. But I’m certainly enthusiastic about doing it.

Q:How much is the institute spending on structural biology right now? And how much growth do you foresee in that area?

CHOPPIN: The total estimated cumulative expenditures in the structural biology program over a five-year period are about $60 million.

The startup costs are very large. The initial startup cost and operation of the units that we anticipated for one year was $25 million.

Q: Is that because a lot of instrumentation is involved?

CHOPPIN:A lot of instrumentation, a lot of heavy equipment—computer equipment, Xray equipment. One of the most exciting and important things that we’re doing is funding the construction of the beam line on the synchrotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The estimated cost is something like $3.1 million and it will be dedicated to biomedical research. It will also be available not just to Hughes investigators but to the biomedical community at large, and is a tremendous resource for biomedical research.

Q:Under Dr. Fredrickson the institute was moving toward playing an important role in the project to map and sequence the human genome. What are your current plans for being involved in that project?

CHOPPIN: That is still continuing. Genetics is the largest of our program areas in terms of the numbers of investigators [see box]. Not all those people are involved, but we have a significant investment in mapping the genome. We are continuing to underwrite the database being run by Frank Ruddle and his collaborators at Yale, and the database that Victor McKusick operates out of Johns Hopkins. We support increased editorial nodes for that library all over the world.

Q:What other areas would you like to see HHMI move into?

CHOPPIN:We are now in five areas of re- search: genetics, immunology, cell biology and regulation, neuroacience, and structural biology. If you interpret those broadly, snd we do, that covers a tremendous sweep of biomedical landscape.

We’re now getting into education—which we have not been able to do before—at all levels. We don’t visualize adding a great many new disciplinary initiatives because we’ve really got most things covered. Obviously we will keep our eyes open, and we will be prepared to move into new areas that we don’t anticipate now—or new branches, really, as those areas develop. We are concerned, as are many people, about the whole question of the physician-scientist, people who have both medical training and basic science training. We are exploring ways that we can perhaps do something more in the broad universe of physician-scientist training, whether it’s expanding a program like the one we already run at the Cloisters at NIH, supporting research opportunities by medical students, whether it’s funding M.D./Ph.D students or looking at training after the M.D. degree. We are concerned about the problem and will probably put more resources into it.

Q: How do you respond to the criticisms that HHMI is distorting the funding process. skimming off the cream of researchers.

CHOPPIN:Thats a difficult question. It is true, certainly, and we make no apology for it, that we want to support as good science as we possibly can. Now if you start to identify and support the best in science, and you are going through a phase of rapid growth, as we were, you tend to emphasize people who are well enough established in their careers to be clearly identified as excellent.

Now we plan to move further down the career scale, so we anticipate appointing a higher proportion of junior people. In June of 1986 we had 51 full investigators, and by April of ‘87 we had 63. We had 39 assistant investigators in June of ‘86, and by April we had 57.

Q: So you’re saying it’s not distorting the system? CHOPPIN: The criticism that might nave validity in certain cases is when an investigator goes from one institution to another. Does the person leave University A to go to University B only because there’s a Hughes unit at University B? Would lie have preferred to stay at University A if the Hughes unit had been there? I suspect that some people do move because of the attraction of a Hughes unit. You could say that’s a perturbetion in the system.

On the other hand, people move all the time within the academic community. A move itself is not necessarily disruptive. It can be constructive.

Secondly, one of the ways that we nave attempted to deal with that problem is our new program of appointing people as individuals rather than as part of a unit. We have begun to be able to say, “Yes, we know you’re trying to be recruited to University B, which has a Hughes unit. There is no Hughes unit at University A, but under the new program we can appoint you as an individual investigator at University A.” In effect, we’ve now leveled the playing field.

Q: Does it matter if a lot of important biomedical research is done with private money instead of public money? Do any significant consequences flow from that?

CHOPPIN: We’re a pluralistic society, and I think it’s important to have things supported by both private and public funds. It’s important to have flexibility in the system. Certainly there are advantages that private philanthropic organizations can extend. For example, we are able to make long-term commitments with relatively little paperwork. We can bet on an individual rather than on a specific research project. We can stay with a project longer, but we can also move faster than. NIH does.

On the other hand, they have strengths that we don’t have. They have both the wherewithal and the obligation to deal with things on a categorical basis. It’s sort of like the difference between a state-run railroad and a private railroad. The state-run rail- rosd has got to go to all towns, whereas the private railroad can pick and choose. You need them both.

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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.16, January 25, 1988)
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