Funding decisions:
the HHMI method

In this essay and in a subsequent essay, I will describe and compare how two organizations carry out the review processes dictating how they spend their funds. I first will cover the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a science philanthropy that provides a bit under $1 billion annually in support of biomedical research and science education. Next month, I will turn to the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the U.S. federal government that distributes between $15 billion and $20 billion in annual funding of extramural biomedical research. My hope is that exploring how these two systems work — and studying their distinctive features — will inspire stakeholders to think seriously about how the NIH peer-review process might be improved.

The HHMI supports a variety of research and education programs, including work done at its own Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Va. Among its various programs, HHMI spends the vast majority of its funds in support of 324 individual investigators who perform research at more than 70 institutions in the U.S.

How are HHMI investigators first tapped? The organization periodically opens a competition for the appointment of new HHMI investigators. These competitions typically are restricted to emerging scientists with five to 15 years of independent research experience and are judged in two phases. The first phase involves reviewers from HHMI’s scientific review board, its medical advisory board, ad hoc reviewers and existing HHMI investigators. Finalists emerging from the initial phase of review are then interviewed in person at the HHMI by scientific review board members, medical advisory board members and ad hoc reviewers.  

HHMI investigators have terms of five years. Roughly one year prior to the end of an appointment term, each HHMI investigator must provide evidence of progress along with a brief plan for future research efforts. Reappointment candidates then present their science in person to the scientific review board, typically composed of 25 to 30 scientists. After reviewing the written materials and the oral presentation of a reappointment candidate, the scientific review board offers its recommendation as to whether or not the investigator should be reappointed. Based upon the review panel’s recommendations, the administrative leadership of the HHMI then makes the final decision.

Having served on the HHMI scientific review board, I am familiar with the review process for both new appointments and reappointments. I highlight below three unique aspects of the review process.

First, more than anything, the HHMI endeavors to select and retain “individuals who have the potential to make significant contributions to science”. New investigators are chosen primarily on the basis of what they have accomplished early in their careers as independent scientists. For existing investigators, past performance during the four-year period preceding the review itself is the dominant criterion for reappointment.

Yes, the HHMI does consider the proposed research plans. But, more than anything, it weighs its appointment decisions upon what the scientists have accomplished during their initial period of independence and its reappointment decisions primarily upon discoveries made by the candidates during the appointment window immediately preceding the review.

The second distinctive feature that I have observed is that the HHMI review process obligatorily involves face-to-face interaction between candidates and reviewers. Although only three to four reviewers provide written assessments of each reappointment candidate, all of the 25 to 30 reviewers get to hear directly from the investigator.

The final distinctive feature concerns the qualifications of the individual reviewers. With respect to investigator reappointment, the HHMI uses its scientific review board to conduct the initial review. Its medical advisory board helps to ensure that the scientific review board’s recommendations are fair and accurate.

The scientific review board consists of 37 biomedical researchers, and the medical advisory board has an additional 13 scientists. Among these 50 review participants, 37 are members of the National Academy of Sciences. It is no accident that 74 percent are academy members. Whether useful or appropriate or not, the HHMI clearly wants its most important decisions, investigator appointment or reappointment, to be guided by the input of accomplished scientists.

I readily admit that past scientific accomplishment does not directly equate to effective capacity to review. I do, however, believe that a reasonable correlation exists between the two. This belief is open for debate.

Why is it that the HHMI is able to induce accomplished scientists to participate in investigator reviews? I offer three explanations. First, the HHMI provides substantial compensation to its reviewers. Second, the review teams are composed of interesting and accomplished scientists, making it enjoyable for individual reviewers to participate. Third, the HHMI appointment or reappointment candidates are themselves of a relatively high level of accomplishment, so reviewers get to review exciting and inventive science.

I close by offering evidence that the HHMI supports unusually talented biomedical researchers.  Seventeen active HHMI investigators, six HHMI alumni and one scientist from the Janelia Farm campus have won the Nobel prize. In addition, 23 current or former HHMI investigators have won the Lasker award in basic medical research or clinical medical research.

Steven McKnight Steven McKnight is president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and chairman of the biochemistry department at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.