HHMI Expands Under New President

WASHINGTON—The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) next month will announce a $40 million-a-year program ranging from support for graduate training in the biomedical sciences to funding of health policy and cost-containment studies. Purnell Choppin, HHMI’s former vice president and chief scientific officer who was appointed president of the institute on September 1, said the education prograin will include funds to upgrade science departments at undergraduate colleges and sup

Sep 21, 1987
Ron Cowen

WASHINGTON—The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) next month will announce a $40 million-a-year program ranging from support for graduate training in the biomedical sciences to funding of health policy and cost-containment studies.

Purnell Choppin, HHMI’s former vice president and chief scientific officer who was appointed president of the institute on September 1, said the education prograin will include funds to upgrade science departments at undergraduate colleges and support for short courses in ethics and other subjects at scientific conferences. Funding for the biomedical education program—a major expansion of HHMI’s activities in this area— represents more than a third of the National Science Foundation’s entire $99 million science education budget for this year.

The new program will also support graduate training at non-academic research institutions, noted George Thorn, chairman of HHMI’s trustees. Thorn and other institute staff members said the new graduate student fellowships will be modeled on NSF fellowships and overseen by the National Academy of Sciences. NAS staff members said HHMI recently asked NAS to submit a proposal for advertising and administering 60 HHMI-funded graduate fellowships to support Ph.D. research in the biosciences for up to five years.

Choppin said the fellowships and other elements of the $40 million venture will complement, rather than compete with, NSF efforts to promote science education. “Everyone agrees we need more support for graduate students, including NSF,” he noted.

Bouncing Back

A former virology professor and dean of graduate studies at The Rockefeller University, Choppin came to HHMI in 1985 and has assumed the presidency as the institute is undergoing rapid expansion. Over the next 10 years, according to its agreement with the Internal Revenue Service, HHMI must spend $100 million more from its $5 billion endowment than it had planned. At the same time, HHMI is still recovering from adverse publicity last June following Donald Fredrickson’s forced resignation as president.

Fredrickson resigned after a trustee inquiry into controversial management practices and spending by him and his wife. (See THE SCIENTIST, June 29, p. 1).

Choppin declined to discuss the impact of Fredrickson’s resigna tion or how his own management style might differ from his predecessor’s. “We’re looking to the future now with enthusiasm; enough has been written about Fredrickson,” he said. But Thorn, who headed the search committee that picked Choppin from 100 candidates nationwide, pointed to one difference between Choppin and Fredrickson. “Purnell’s main interest is in carrying out research activities. Fredrickson was more interested in the institute’s relationship to the outside world,” he said. Fredrickson is now an unsalarmed guest researcher at NIH.

Thorn noted that HHMI has established an internal auditing department at its Bethesda, Md., offices. According to Thorn, the auditing department should ensure that the type of spending that occurred under Fredrickson’s tenure “cannot happen.”

In addition to the education program, which was formulated during Fredrickson’s presidency, HHMI is launching efforts to fund research in structural biology, including immunology, genetics, neuroscience and cell biology. Choppin said HHMI also would begin to fund individual investigators at established research centers instead of limiting its support to investigators affiliated with HHMI laboratories. Choppin noted that HHMI now supports 163 scientists and 1,170 associated support staff, compared with 120 investigators and 1,000 staff members a year ago. Choppin expects those figures to grow next year to 186 investigators and 1,600 support staff.

Cowen is a freelance writer.