Citing a need to save money and a desire to make a bigger splash, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has decided to cancel its 15-year-old graduate fellowship program. The program, which has funneled nearly $150 million to support some 1200 doctoral students in the biological sciences, will end after a final round of awards this spring as HHMI rethinks how best to support the next generation of biomedical researchers.
"It's important for us to be able to identify the impact our money is having on the field," says Peter Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs. "As impressive as these students are, I think that they would be funded whether we were there or not. Our next step is to figure out what type of programs we want to support, and to what end?"
Each year, Hughes picks the cream of the crop for its 5-year, portable fellowships, which are open to college seniors and first-year graduate students. Historically, roughly half of each class of 80 chooses to attend one of just four schools: Harvard University leads the way, followed by Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco. Bruns says that an institution-based program, perhaps in the form of graduate traineeships, would allow HHMI not only to spread the wealth better but also to require faculty "to articulate what they want to do" with the students--for example, foster interdisciplinary collaborations or encourage the transfer of basic research into patient care. "We're looking at new niches in the pipeline," Bruns says, "and we want people to help us redefine graduate training in biology."
Terminating the program will save $17 million a year, says Bruns, adding that each one of the institute's activities is under scrutiny in light of a 3-year downturn in the stock market that has shrunk HHMI's endowment from $13 billion to $10.1 billion. By taking a year to decide what to do next, officials are also betting that the economy will have recovered sufficiently to launch a program nearly as large as the current fellowships.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute