This spring, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute announced the winners of the HHMI Early Career Science Competition. Among the 50 young scientists nationwide who will have their work supported for the next six years were four HSCI faculty members: Amy Wagers, PhD, Konrad Hochedlinger, PhD, Kevin Eggan, PhD, and Bradley Bernstein, MD, PhD. A fifth Harvard researcher, Rachel Wilson, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology at the Harvard Medical School, was also selected for the award.
Each of the new HHMI Early Career Scientists will receive a six-year appointment to the institute, including full salary, benefits, and research budget of $1.5 million over the six-year appointment. The institute will also cover other expenses, including a research space and the purchase of critical equipment.
These young researchers were selected for this exciting opportunity because of their demonstrated ability to approach science with creativity and innovation. In the case of the HSCI faculty, their "high risk/high reward" work was funded in part by HSCI seed grants, of which all four were recipients.
"I am thankful for the support and mentorship I've received from all my colleagues at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute; the open and interactive environment fostered by the HSCI was a tremendous help to me in getting my lab started, and continues to enhance my research on a daily basis," said Wagers.
An HHMI statement described the researchers as "energetic and passionate about a broad range of scientific questions… at a career stage that many consider to be a scientist's most productive—and most vulnerable."
Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman hailed the selection of the Harvard researchers as "a great day for these five young investigators, and a great day for Harvard. Receiving the support accorded an HHMI Early Career Scientist relieves Kevin, Konrad, Amy, Rachel, and Brad of many of the distracting stresses with which most young scientists struggle, and allows them each to fulfill their unique intellectual promise," he said.
"Similarly, having the Howard Hughes Medical Institute select five young Harvard researchers for this honor accorded to only 50 people nationwide speaks volumes about the strength of our science, and the kinds of young scientists we have been attracting and nourishing," Hyman added.
The HHMI statement said, "in today's constrained research funding environment, many early career faculty find it difficult to establish and develop their research programs. They often launch their own labs with start-up funds from their host institution. That support is provided with the expectation that the scientist will establish his or her own research program with independent funding.
"The creativity and energy that researchers bring to starting their own labs can quickly be sapped by the time-consuming and often frustrating quest for funding," the statement continues. "Within a few years of a new faculty appointment, a researcher's institutional start-up funds typically come to an end. Pressure to secure federal grant money may lead to ‘safe' grant proposals. As a result, creative and potentially transformative research projects may fall by the wayside."
The HHMI appointments come at a particularly crucial time in the ongoing struggle for research funding. While the NIH has received an infusion of Economic Recovery Act funding, the agency's support for biomedical research has been flat for more than five years, and in real dollars has decreased by more than 13 percent.
Because of that situation, competition for funding has become ever stiffer, and the funding that has been available has tended to go toward more established researchers with "safer" proposals. In fact, the average age at which researchers now receive their first R01 grant, the major grant that is seen as establishing their independent careers, is 43.
Hochedlinger noted that "support from the HHMI will allow me to go into directions which I would have otherwise not been able to do in the current funding situation. For example, I will be able to invest in new tools and technologies to study pluripotency and reprogramming and hire people to bring new expertise into my lab," he said. "I am very excited to be part of this prestigious institute [HHMI] and look forward to working together with my new colleagues."
"We saw a tremendous opportunity for HHMI to impact the research community by freeing promising scientists to pursue their best ideas during this early stage of their careers," said HHMI President Thomas R. Cech. "At the same time, we hope that our investment in these 50 faculty will free the resources of other agencies to support the work of other outstanding early career scientists," Cech said in explaining HHMI's investment of about $200 million in the 50 young researchers.
Commenting on the researchers selected for the award, Jack Dixon, HHMI's vice president and chief scientific officer, said, "These scientists are at the early stage of their careers, when they are full of energy and not afraid to try something new. They have already demonstrated that they are not apt to play it safe—and we hope they will continue to do something really original."
Bernstein said the HHMI appointment would provide "our laboratory a wonderful opportunity to pursue hypotheses and potentially risky new research directions aimed at understanding how genome function is regulated in mammalian development and disease."
"I am thrilled and honored by this opportunity to join such a distinguished group of scientists," said Wagers. "The support of the HHMI will ensure that I can continue to pursue new and creative directions in my research, which I hope will bring new perspectives in stem cell biology and tissue regeneration."