Funding researchers, not research

A stethoscope sitting on a laptop


Kai Ryssdal: Today, one of the country's biggest philanthropic organizations did what it does best: It gave away bucketfuls of money.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute says it's going to bankroll 56 scientists. They'll split a pot of more than $600 million for their research.

But you'll notice I didn't say what that research is for. That's because it doesn't really matter. Unlike most grants, today's money isn't tied to specific projects.

Jeremy Hobson explains it's going to be given to scientists directly, who can then study whatever they want.

Jeremy Hobson: The Hughes Institute wants its researchers to go out on a limb.

Tom Cech is the organization's president.

Tom Cech: Often in the course of research, you stumble upon leads to your question that were different from what you originally proposed and by funding the person, not the project, we are freeing people up to follow those leads.

For example, he says, one investigator started out studying retroviruses, but he switched gears and started building miniature arrays to look at the expression of genes in an organism -- don't worry, I have no idea what that means either.

Cech: But before long, he was looking at typing various sorts of leukemias and lymphomas and breast cancers. So he moved into the cancer area with tremendous results.

But Kei Koizumi says funding the person instead of the project isn't always a good idea. He heads the R&D budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Kei Koizumi: Funding a person does carry a little bit more risk because you don't know what that person's going to come up with and of course, that is true if you're funding a research project as well -- you're not sure what the result is, but you are at least more sure about what kind of goal you are reaching for.

Koizumi says ideally, every funding institution would have a mix of both high and low risk grants, but he says the Hughes money has taken on a new significance because of stagnant funding at the National Institutes of Health and many scientists say a tighter budget has made the NIH less willing to take risks.

In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.
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Dear Hughes Institute

This was a rather intriguing story on NPR's All Things Considered. It gave the impression that Hughes was "looking for new scientists to respond with new ideas."

So I thought I'd offer my unique study that I performed single-handed for thousands of the general random public and several schools many students and faculty to benefit from.
Actually, as I say I did this single handed, I actually involved thousands of the random public over several years. In fact, I initiated this while just after losing my career of nearly 30 years.
I set out with a $5,000 research grade h-alpha solar telescope that I requested the use of from my local astronomy club in Portland Oregon.
I took this telescope with me on a 10,000 mile solo road trip across the US-Canadian continent in 2000 during high solar activity, setting it up in inner cities across the nation allowing the public the free opportunity to safely observe the solar activity live through the eyepiece of this instrument. I also continued this process overseas for three trips to the Fiji Islands in 2003 ~ 2004.

Many people could not believe that I was doing this for free. It drew intense interest from teachers and schools. This instrument is not readily available at just any institution, yet alone even available to the general public. The image of the sun appears as an orange lava ball textured with flame-like structures that can be seen to move and change over time. It is the hydrogen gasses ejecting from the suns surface, some days extending out for hundreds of thousands of miles. The image is stunning and breathtaking to the first time observer. many people have no idea what the sun is actually doing. This is their first experience to realize this. Most people do not understand what solar power is or why it happens. A glimpse of this image live can change their minds. It surprises me that this is not offered more often for students in schools. This is small gesture from one person but a large part of what is in dire need in our education systems today.
The documentation of this can be seen here>

I have recently further produced intense artistic pastel sketches made form my observations of the sun through the solar telescope. These have been featured in NASA web sites front pages many times. The world responded with great interest to this art.

I believe that there is a melding of art and science needed in education today that begs for a study. Can I offer to extend this study if there are research grants available to support it?

Please feel free to contact me,

Mark E Seibold
503 753 3811

In this story, Mr Hobson states, "... don't worry, I have no idea what that means either." While intended as a throw away line, it perpetuates a belief that math and science are challenging subjects and should be left to the scientist. In an age where America is failing behind in science and math relative to the rest of the world, I believe journalists have a responsibility to a) break down issues relating to science and math and perhaps even more importantly b) represent science and math understanding as attainable, not insurmountable.

It`s a open contract on the hidden howard hughes Jr`s kid`s,thats why they don`t give a project listing-or maybe the money could stop and they would all have to get real jobs.

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