Howard Hughes to Launch Labs of New Investigators Abroad

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced today a new competition to help foreign-born scientists trained in the United States build research programs after they return to their home country. Early-career scientists from 18 countries are eligible for the 5-year, $650,000 awards, and up to 35 grants will be made.

HHMI President Robert Tjian says the program is part of a push to broaden the reach of the institute's international programs, which now receive about $10 million of the $827 million Hughes spends each year on research and education. The United States trains a "huge number" of foreign postdocs—which "I'm all for," says Tjian. But many face barriers to their scientific careers after they return home. "The goal is to provide those who want to go back with the opportunity" to continue to do top-notch research, he says.

To be eligible, applicants must have done graduate or medical studies or a postdoc in the United States and have started a lab within the past 7 years. Those selected will receive $250,000 the first year, then $100,000 annually for 4 years. They will also attend meetings with the roughly 350 investigators HHMI supports in the United States.

Hughes began its international programs in 1991 with awards to scientists in Canada, Mexico, and later South America and Eastern Europe. The 18 countries eligible for the new competition are "a new set of players," says Tjian. Canada, Uruguay, Venezuela, Peru, and nine Eastern European countries have been dropped, and China, Egypt, India, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, and Turkey have been added. The countries were chosen because they have the infrastructure--such as good education systems—to support the new scientists yet can't provide all the research funding they need for what HHMI calls "potentially transformative research projects." Applications are due 23 February.

Bruce Stillman, a member of HHMI's medical advisory board, says the new program will export the U.S. model of allowing young scientists to work independently. In many countries, Stillman says, the system is either "very hierarchical" and dominated by older scientists or "scientific socialism," in which it's hard for the best to stand out. "I think it's a good move. Hughes should be putting its money where it will make a difference," says Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. The program joins another new HHMI international venture, a $60 million center in South Africa that will study co-incidence of HIV and tuberculosis.

Tjian is also phasing out the institute's geographically based programs for researchers at all career stages and another international program focused on infectious and parasitic diseases, which together support about 100 investigators. HHMI hasn't yet decided what—if anything—will replace the funding it is providing to these established scientists after the last grants run out in December 2011. "There may be a short hiatus," Tjian says, while the institute evaluates the results of the early-career program.

Some international scholars say they aren't concerned about losing their HHMI support. But others, excluded from the new initiative because they don't qualify as early-career investigators or didn't train in the United States, expressed frustration with the lack of information about Hughes's plans for them. Marta Miaczynska of the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw says Poland is overhauling its grants system and she's not sure how she will replace her HHMI funding, which covers 20% to 25% of her lab's costs. "I find it a pity that we cannot apply for the renewal of our HHMI grants," Miaczynska says.

Molecular biologist Alberto Kornblihtt of the University of Buenos Aires has used 9 years of HHMI support to expand his lab and publish a string of papers in high-impact journals. But he's worried that such success will come to an end. Local funding "will be insufficient alone to support the kind of science we managed to do thanks to HHMI," says Kornblihtt, who's not eligible for the new awards.

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