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Going green: New program provides vital support for plant scientists

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (GBMF) today announced a new research program that will provide critical support to some of the nation's most innovative plant scientists. The institutions, which are collaborating for the first time, say they will invest a combined total of $75 million in the program over the next five years.

HHMI and GBMF will select as many as 15 HHMI-GBMF Investigators working in a range of scientific disciplines relevant to plant sciences research. The national competition, which begins on September 30, 2010, is open to researchers who have run their own lab for at least four years. The scientists will receive an initial five-year appointment to HHMI and receive the support necessary to move their research in creative, new directions. Those selected may be renewed for additional five-year terms, each contingent on a successful scientific review.

Despite the central role plants play in maintaining human health and in healthcare, basic research in the plant sciences has been historically underfunded. The bulk of the United States Department of Agriculture funding has not gone to competitive basic research and the Biology Directorate program at the National Science Foundation is relatively small, and has had limited dedicated programs in fundamental plant biology. Furthermore, researchers working in the plant sciences receive a relatively small percentage of funding from the National Institutes of Health.

"There is no question that plant scientists have a tremendous potential to help address and possibly alleviate some of society's most pressing concerns, such as food production, human health, protection of the environment, and renewable energy," said HHMI President Robert Tjian. "We are very fortunate to have found in the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, an institution that believes, as we do, that we must act now to do more to nurture and support the bold ideas of the best plant scientists."

Since its creation in 2000, GBMF, which is headquartered in Palo Alto, has maintained a steady focus on supporting environmental conservation, non-biomedical science, and the San Francisco Bay Area. HHMI has a long history of identifying scientists with exceptional talent and providing them with long-term, flexible funding so they can pursue solutions to important basic life sciences and biomedical research questions wherever they lead. The path that led to the HHMI-GBMF collaboration began in 2008, when the scientific leadership of HHMI met with the Institute's medical advisory board at a retreat to brainstorm ideas for new research initiatives. A new plant science research program emerged as a top contender.

A year later, the Institute convened a scientific workshop that invited a select group of scientists from academia and industry to discuss "Future Horizons in Plant Science." At the conclusion of the workshop, those present reached the consensus that despite the lack of funding, additional investment in the plant sciences could have a big impact. When Robert Tjian became president of HHMI in 2009, a plant sciences initiative rose to the top of his list of priority items. Furthermore, Tjian, who had formerly served as chairman of the scientific advisory board at GBMF, suggested that HHMI and GBMF explore a partnership to invest jointly in plant sciences research.

"We are thrilled to be partnering with HHMI to support current and emerging leaders in the plant sciences field," said Steven J. McCormick, President of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. "Our increasingly interconnected world, and the challenges and opportunities it faces, oblige us to seek shared approaches with both grantees and other funders. Through collaboration and alignment of resources with an exceptional partner like HHMI, we will have a far greater impact in the fields where we engage."

HHMI and GBMF believe the establishment of this new joint program will underscore the importance of enhanced support for plant sciences research and can be leveraged to increase interest in this field by others.

"Plants play a critical role in sustaining the health of the planet," said Vicki L. Chandler, Chief Program Officer for Science at GBMF. "We believe that generating fundamental new knowledge about how plants function and relate to Earth's ecology, biodiversity, and climateand to human health and well-beingwill 'move the needle' in the plant sciences and will cross disciplinary lines, impacting other fields as well."

HHMI Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer Jack E. Dixon pointed out that HHMI and GBMF intend for this to be a one-time, targeted competition. "We hope in taking this approach that our interest will signal the need for more investment," Dixon said. "We are optimistic that, over time, we will receive more applications from plant scientists when we conduct general competitions for new HHMI Investigator positions."


Contact: Jim Keeley
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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