Since 2009, Robert Tjian has been president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) — the largest private funder of academic biomedical research in the United States. In 2015, HHMI invested $666 million in biomedical research and provided $85 million in grants and other support for science education. During his time as president, Tjian launched a range of initiatives, including new support for early-career scientists. He remains an active investigator and has continued his research on the biochemistry of gene regulation at HHMI's Janelia Research Campus and at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is a faculty member. Tjian has announced that he will be stepping down as head of the institute at the end of 2016 and will be returning full-time to his lab at UC Berkeley.
Q: Are there initiatives that you didn’t have time to implement but you would like to see developed by HHMI over the next years?
A: One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last year would be some kind of effort to improve the training of physician-scientists or patient-oriented researchers — people who are really trained both in clinical medicine and in basic research. I think that’s a very difficult path for people to take right now. It takes a very long time to get both an MD and a PhD, and then complete a post-doc, and become independent, and then get funding. So I think that for the continued health of the biomedical research enterprise, organizations like the Howard Hughes, and other health organizations, need to modernize the path for the training of physician-scientists. That’s a big project that unfortunately I won’t have time to launch. So I would say that if I had to think about something that would be unfinished business, that would be it.
Q: And how can the physician-scientist path be modernized? Are we talking about financial support or does the whole training program need change?
A: The whole program. The whole curriculum from undergraduate all the way through residency needs to be completely revamped. It takes much too long right now. I think the most creative years of physician-scientists are taken up during their training period rather than their creative discovery period. So of course it’s going to require resources, but first I think we don’t even know exactly how to fix it.
Q: In 2009, you helped launch a program to fund 50 promising early-career scientists. Is there a way to help more young scientists?
A: Yes, we actually announced a program we call the Faculty Scholars Program, which is quite a different program than the early-career scientists one, but it’s directed at the same demographics of early-career people. It’s a much bigger program. It was actually funded by the Howard Hughes, when we launched it, but we’ve been joined by the Gates Foundation and the Simons Foundation to appoint maybe 70 or more of these Faculty Scholars Program every couple of years. That’s a lot.
Now, even with that, in terms of making a truly huge impact across the country and at the top 100 research institutions, it’s not going to be enough because no matter how big the private foundations and organizations, like the Hughes, are, we’re a tiny fraction. Unless the federal government picks up where we start, we’re never going to have the scale-up that would be necessary. But at least we can use these programs as a demonstration of a path forward.
Q: So we need federal funding agencies to implement similar programs?
A: Well, that goes without saying. I mean, they have programs of various sorts, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the federal government — the NIH [National Institutes of Health], and the NCI [National Cancer Institute], and the NSF [National Science Foundation] — don’t have programs. But I think that those programs probably need to be reevaluated to see whether they are actually achieving their goals. We constantly have to reevaluate how we do business and how we identify talent, how we support young people, and at what stage in their career they need the support. Right now young faculty members even at the very top universities are spending an inordinate amount of their time not doing research but writing grants, which to me is completely counterproductive. So, clearly, we’ve got a problem. We’re doing our small part in that, but all we can do is set up programs that have certain features that are positive, and maybe then the federal government will see the value of it, and they may change accordingly.
Q: Funding is tight, and on top of that, among young scientists there is now a notion of a growing academic pyramid — there are many more PhDs and post-docs in training than available senior research positions in academia. Do you think that we need fewer PhDs?
A: No, I think we need more PhDs. I think this is a big misunderstanding. The country needs more PhDs; it needs more highly trained scientists who understand complex biological and scientific problems. Because the world is having to make decisions every day that require that knowledge, and it’s not there. So no, I would definitely not be advocating having less scientific training. The problem, actually, is not finding jobs — there are plenty of academic jobs. The problem is getting grants.
A related issue is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with well-trained PhDs going away from the bench to do something else. These are highly trained, very intelligent, very effective, thoughtful, productive individuals. Many of my most talented graduate students that I’ve trained with PhDs in molecular biology and biochemistry have gone on to be lawyers, venture capitalists, you name it. I think that’s great! Because they never forget their scientific training, and to me that’s worth every effort. So that’s why I say, no, we need more PhDs, not fewer.
Q: There is a lot of discussion now that PhDs and post-docs should get training in addition to the one they receive for careers in academia.
A: In many ways, they already do. We try to teach them how to write, how to teach, how to be leaders, how to coordinate with other people, how to work in teams, so all of that’s already happening in the lab. It’s not formalized, we’re not giving courses in this, but that’s what’s happening in the majority of labs. Those of my students who have gone on into diverse fields never felt that they were underprepared.
Q: Do you think society, employers, perceive PhDs as being versatile in their skills-set as opposed to just people who are really good at doing experiments?
A: I’m guessing that really talented people who have this very rigorous training as laboratory scientists are excelling in all aspects of whatever job they end up doing, whether it’s legal, whether it’s finance, whether it’s venture, whether it’s — you name it!
This is the first part of a two-part interview. The second part will appear in the fall edition of the Lasker newsletter.
Robert Tjian serves on the board of the Lasker Foundation.