HHMI skips over the College in 2008 grant awards

When the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced the 48 recipients of its undergraduate science education grants last week, the College was notably absent from the list. Money from these grants has supported the College’s science programs for 17 straight years. Without the grant, the science departments will be forced to abandon certain programs and seek out alternative funding for others.

HHMI, a nonprofit medical research organization, allocated a combined $60 million to the winning institutions for their work in the biological sciences. Awards ranged from $700,000 to $1.6 million over a four-year cycle.

Though its request was turned down the first time it applied to HHMI, Williams received funding in 1991, 1993, 1996, 2000 and 2004. In the last cycle, the College was granted $1.6 million, one of the largest awards.

“It’s hugely disappointing,” said Wendy Raymond, professor of biology and HHMI project director. “It was shocking, but then again we were really fortunate in all the previous years.”

Steven Zottoli, chair and professor of biology and former HHMI project director, also noted that applying for HHMI grants is a “highly competitive process.” As institutions apply for HHMI grants by invitation only, merely being in contention for a grant affirmed the strength of the College’s program. This year, only 224 institutions were invited and 192 applied.

According to Chip Lovett, director of the science center and professor of chemistry, “The reviews were very positive.” However, Raymond acknowledged a few weaknesses in the proposal: it requested significant funds for ongoing rather than new programs; it lacked concrete assessments of the continuing programs; and it came from an institution that has already received several HHMI grants.

HHMI indicated that it was especially critical of proposals from previously-funded institutions. According to an HHMI press release, “[The list of institutions that received grants] includes the largest number of new grantees in more than a decade; more than a quarter have never received an HHMI grant before.”

Furthermore, Williams’ 2008 grant proposal requested continued funding of existing HHMI programs, crowding new ones out of the proposal. Raymond admitted that the proposal might not have had the right “innovation-continuation balance.”

In addition, the College, and therefore the proposal, was short on concrete proof that the existing programs are actually working. HHMI was “looking for proposals that include plans to assess the impact of programs using measurable outcomes, as well as evidence of noteworthy innovations or compelling new approaches,” according to an HHMI press release from 2007.

Although the College received no grant, “We thought it was a strong proposal and we’ve been doing good things all along with Hughes money,” said Chip Lovett, director of the science center and professor of chemistry.

Since 1991, HHMI grants have funded the College’s elementary school outreach programs in Williamstown and North Adams. HHMI funds have also supported on-campus summer research programs and the Marine Biological Laboratory summer program, through which six undergraduates and a faculty advisor participate in research projects at the prestigious Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass.

Had it received funding in this cycle, the College would have funded on-campus research projects for two postdoctoral fellows from underrepresented minorities, and led a committee comprising faculty from 13 liberal arts colleges that would support recruitment of faculty from underrepresented minorities. The first project is no longer on the table. The second is being taken over by one of the other colleges. Proposed programs with MCLA and Mount Greylock Regional High School now require new funding sources.

The College is exploring ways of maintaining the present programs, having committed to fund the elementary school outreach program until spring 2009. The administration is still considering the possibility of funding other projects.

“Unfortunately, particularly with the budget for next year already determined, we cannot do all that we had hoped to do next year,” said Bill Wagner, dean of the faculty. “But given the importance of the programs involved, the College will be using its own resources to maintain many of them, in some cases perhaps in modified form. Some other members of the senior staff and I are in the process of reviewing all of the programs concerned and determining how the College should respond.”