Reposted with permission from Science News, 15 October 2004

The country's biggest private sponsor of biomedical research is joining hands with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in an unusual arrangement to train interdisciplinary scientists.

Under the initiative, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will provide up to $1 million over 3 years to each of 10 institutions to help them create Ph.D. programs that integrate biomedicine with the physical sciences and engineering. The money will go toward hiring staff and developing curricula. Once the programs are up and running, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) will provide 5 years of funding to support the actual training of the graduate students. The total cost of the initiative is estimated at $35 million.

The 4-year-old NIBIB already funds training programs at 21 schools around the country. What is unusual about this effort, however, is that HHMI -- not NIBIB -- will choose the participating institutions. After 3 years Hughes will hand the program over to NIBIB, which will review an institution's progress before providing additional funding. "Although phase II funding is not guaranteed, we expect that all the programs will do well enough to qualify," says NIBIB's Henry Khachaturian. Each program is expected to train up to 10 students.

HHMI officials approached NIBIB with the idea to "ensure sustainability of the programs that we would be helping to create," says Peter Bruns, HHMI's vice president for grants and special programs. "It's unrealistic to start a training program without making sure that students will have continued funding." NIBIB welcomed the opportunity "to foster interdisciplinary training in a planned way," says institute director Roderic Pettigrew. "HHMI is better equipped than NIH to underwrite and develop the infrastructure for new programs. NIH, on the other hand, is well equipped to support programs that are fully established."

Although observers like the idea of pooling public and private resources for graduate training, some wonder about the wisdom of having a private foundation, in effect, select grantees for a federally funded program. "If the institutions chosen by HHMI are really the cream of the crop, why do they need a protected competition for funding from NIBIB?" asks one society official, who requested anonymity. A better approach might be "for HHMI and NIBIB to work together on all aspects of selection and administration from day one," says Peter Katona, director of the Whitaker Foundation, a major supporter of research training in biomedical engineering.

NIBIB officials say the agency will help HHMI select appropriate reviewers and ensure that a majority of them will be available for reviewing phase II applications. Guidelines for the competition, open to any U.S. institution granting Ph.D.s in biology, are online at www.hhmi.org/grants/df/comp_annc/2005_nibib_program.pdf