In 1953, the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes created a medical institute devoted to basic research, then gave it entire ownership of his Hughes Aircraft Company. The institute was intended to be a “steady operating organization with its own laboratories and not a general program of giving money away”—what the IRS has deemed a “medical-research organization” rather than a foundation. Business and legal battles prevented the institute from reaping much profit from the aeronautic company in its first few decades, but in 1985 General Motors bought Hughes Aircraft for $5.2 billion, and suddenly the Institute became the largest medical philanthropy in the country.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is focused on cell biology, genetics, immunology, neuroscience, and structural biology. It has long selected and employed Hughes Investigators who are left posted in labs across the country so they can benefit from wide cross-fertilization of ideas. In 2014 this investigator program supported about 350 scientists, along with their research teams, as they conducted experiments at more than 70 different universities, hospitals, or research centers. HHMI also runs a large program to support promising scientists at early stages of their career (a time when government grants are rarely forthcoming), as well as a program to support outstanding scientists working outside the U.S. (who again do not qualify for federal support).
Having become a driving force in U.S. biomedical research, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute launched a major new initiative in 2006 when it built a $300 million research campus of its own, called the Janelia Farm, on nearly 700 acres outside of Washington, D.C. There it employs over 400 people who do high-risk, long-term research in large interdisciplinary teams—with the idea that certain kinds of problems may be more easily solved by this more corporate style of investigation than by the traditional dispersed individual-researcher model that Hughes has long supported (and will continue to fund).
HHMI’s endowment stands at $17 billion, and in its latest year it employed 2,883 individuals and spent nearly a billion dollars. Having provided more than $7 billion in direct support to scientists just since 2004, the organization is the largest private funder of academic medical research in the world.
And there is evidence that this philanthropy’s flexible private grants have been much more effective than government counterparts. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for instance, found that “investigators of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which tolerates early failure, rewards long-term success, and gives its appointees great freedom to experiment…. produce high-impact papers at a much higher rate than a control group of similarly accomplished NIH-funded scientists.”