Robert Tjian on Funding Innovation

Questions For / by Greg Boustead /

The recently appointed president of HHMI on the importance of creativity and innovation for the future of funding science.

How much does discovery cost? How best to finance the ideas that ultimately advance our daily lives? How are these decisions made? Behind the myriad advancements in society exist countless working scientists, key policymakers, and, critically, a long trail of money. With the current dismal economic outlook, many creative solutions on the future funding of research projects are needed. Also, it’s clear that new ways to stimulate breakthroughs and a reconsideration of “big science,” or the pooling together of massive resources to address a single issue, such as cancer or AIDS, are playing increasingly important roles in the financial landscape of basic research, as well as drug and technology development. Robert Tjian — a preeminent molecular biologist and the newly elected president of the richest privately endowed funding agency in the US, Howard Hughes Medical Institute — maintains that true innovation and discovery lie at the heart of any discussion about money and science.

What are your primary goals and initiatives for HHMI in the coming years?

Even at a well-endowed institute like the HHMI, the current stock market situation is going to have an impact — not a huge impact, but certainly some impact. Having said that, it’s pretty clear what my primary objectives will be. First, to make sure that the investigator program continues on its successful pathway. We consistently try to identify the best talent out there and give them enough funding so that they can really follow their instincts. We don’t tell them what to do. We bet more on people than projects. We are counting on their individual creativity and their passion for whatever projects they are trying to study. Second is to ensure the success of Janelia Farms, a new research facility that brings together outstanding scientists from diverse disciplines to pursue biology’s most challenging problems. That’s important, and I think it will be a successful experiment. Third, I believe that the HHMI is much more than just research-granting support for investigators; it’s really an education instrument as well. I take that seriously. I will look very carefully at what programs we may be able to create anew or bring back that will help train and excite the next generations of really creative scientists.

How are inducement prizes, such as the X Prize, and big science initiatives changing how research is funded?

I think that all of these different mechanisms for funding science are wonderful because they encourage different kinds of people to be innovative. At the same time though, it’s a limited pot of resources. It’s hard to be sure whether the big science projects — which can take a significant percentage of the funding from the NIH, for example — are ultimately going to be as productive as typical investigator-initiated science projects. My own view is that what’s consistently propelled American scientific success has been individual, investigator-initiated science projects. I don’t imagine that will change too much. That’s not to say that the larger projects — for example, the genome-sequencing projects — are not worth it. Obviously, some of them are. Some people will be motivated by pursuing the X Prize to try things that they never would have done otherwise. A certain number of these catalytic events are really worth it. But I tend to favor the creative and individually masterminded, out-of-left-field kind of science, which often ends up being the most transformative. I’m confident that much of the truly original ideas come from people doing things that they are passionate about and then stumbling onto something completely unexpected. Certainly, the biological field is strewn with examples of great discoveries — absolutely revolutionary discoveries — that came out of seemingly trivial things. It’s not very often that big science leads you to true innovation in the sense of novel discoveries.

In the early 90s, you helped found the hugely ambitious biotech firm Tularik, which was funded with a significant amount of venture capital. Is there still opportunity for entrepreneurial scientists to start a company with such an aggressive business strategy?

You can never do things the same way twice. What we did in the early 90s was different from what they did in the 80s and certainly different from what they did in the 70s with the start of Genentech and Amgen. That’s one of the things I like about biotech: You can’t do it cookie-cutter style. You really have to think about how to be innovative and push forward new technologies and new ways of using the deep biological knowledge to create value in new medical treatments. I’m very excited — despite the challenging financial situation at the moment — about the possibility that startups will continue to prosper. There are so many more things that we can do today than we could 15 years ago. The assays are faster. The understanding of the deep biological network is better. The chemistry is more advanced. But you just can’t do it exactly the same way as Tularik did. It goes back to innovation. Let’s face it: The big pharmaceutical companies aren’t going to generate new platforms. And the human population is going to run into all kinds of big health problems, and there has to be innovation to move forward.

What critical discoveries do you foresee in the years ahead?

I don’t think any of us is smart enough to predict what’s going to happen. If we could, it would not be as much fun or a challenge [laughs]. But I can certainly describe the things that I would like to be able to achieve. It’s fundamentally important to understand how different cell types arise, how they work, what defines them. I feel quite optimistic that our studies, and those of others, are going to lead to new paradigms in this field. That’s as much fun as one can have. Maybe, if I keep working in this area, people are going to have to go back and rewrite the textbooks. That, to a scientist, is the ultimate thrill.

You have a reputation for recruiting especially talented and dedicated scientists. What’s your secret?

I wish I knew. I would sell it if I knew what it was. My intuition is always to put my faith in people. Ask a simple question: Would they still do this if they weren’t getting paid? If the answer is yes, then you know they are really serious about what they want to do.

Originally published November 16, 2008

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