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Trillions in Philanthropy Forecast
Choppin Asserts Role for Private Support of Biomedicine

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

The billionaire down the block — the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, barely a mile down Jones Bridge Rd. from NIH — sent an emissary Nov. 17 for the third annual James A. Shannon Lecture sponsored by the NIH Alumni Association. Dr. Purnell Choppin, a virologist who has been president of HHMI since 1987 and who is stepping down from that post at the end of December, assured an audience in Masur Auditorium that HHMI's work "can only be complementary (to NIH's role) and incremental. We are not a substitute."


The $11.8 billion medical research organization currently supplies about 22 percent of all nonprofit research support in biomedicine, funding some 331 investigators at 71 institutions, said Choppin. It has spent more than $5 billion since 1985 on its five areas of specialty: cell biology and regulation, genetics, immunology, neuroscience and structural biology; a new field — computational biology — is just emerging. Spending per year has risen from about $100 million in 1985 — the year after HHMI sold its main asset, Hughes Aircraft, to General Motors for about $4 billion — to more than $600 million in 1999.

"This is small compared to the NIH budget, but substantial in terms of private support," he said.

While he juggled some lofty numbers — there were 170 billionaires in 1998, compared to only 13 in 1982, and private philanthropists, depending on which economists you believe, are poised to contribute anywhere from teens of trillions to many dozens of trillions to various good causes in the coming half century, he reported — Choppin leavened the dazzlement of sums with colorful tales of the institute's benefactor, Howard Hughes Jr., who set himself four goals in life: to be the world's richest man, the world's most famous aviator, the best filmmaker and best golfer. In pursuit of the latter goal, Choppin reported, he hired helicopters to film his golf swing from above.

Dr. Purnell W. Choppin (l) accepts plaque commemorating his talk from NIHAA president Dr. William I. Gay.

Choppin began his lecture on a light note, first thanking NIH profusely for its support of his career (he left multiple roles at Rockefeller University to take the leadership of HHMI, abandoning a grant from NIAID that was in its 23rd year) then exhibiting a tabloid headline from the Dec. 21, 1993, issue of Weekly World News announcing that Howard Hughes had been brought back to life. He then read a witty letter from the IRS, which had taken note of the headline and wanted Choppin to be aware of the tax consequences of such a resurrection.

"The IRS does have a sense of humor," he observed in an accent giving away his roots in Louisiana.

While NIH is far and away the world's largest supporter of biomedical research, with a just-won FY 2000 budget of almost $18 billion, the government has not always been the principal funder of basic science. Choppin noted that in 1930, half of the financial support for medical research came from the private sector. By 1940, the private sector contributed only 27 percent of the total, a figure that dwindled to around 4 percent in 1980 and has remained in that vicinity ever since, he said.

"The rapid descent (in private support of science) that began in the forties corresponds with the flowering of the NIH," he said. "The sense was that the government was doing such an effective job that foundations directed their resources elsewhere."

The Hughes fortune was built on an innovative drill bit that combined three drill heads on one stem, and proved ideal in smashing through rock to get at oil. Howard Hughes Sr., who raced autos as a hobby, invented the tool and, rather than sell it to drillers, he leased it, assuring maximum profitability. His son Howard Jr. took over Hughes Tool Co. at age 18, and launched a Hollywood career while pursuing an interest in aviation. Two years later, he was prescient enough to dedicate his estate to medical research. At age 25, he made an award-winning film about World War II flying aces called Hell's Angels. He later designed and built the H-1, a jet that introduced flush-rivet construction, and which broke both short course and trans-Atlantic speed records. It was only relatively late in life that the reclusive and mentally ill Hughes gained a darker public reputation among many Americans; Choppin asserts that 50 years from now, history will not recall him as a pitiful victim of "what was almost certainly obsessive-compulsive disorder," but as the hero who founded HHMI in 1953.

Choppin touched on achievements HHMI is most proud of, including a grants program that debuted in 1987 and which was budgeted in 1999 at $100 million, with programs reaching elementary schools, high schools, colleges and postdoctoral studies. "We have spent more than $430 million in grants for undergraduate education, which is the largest private nonprofit initiative in support of education in the history of the United States," he said. HHMI support of international scientists is particularly rewarding when the Hughes cachet around a given scientist prompts his or her government to commit additional research money to the work, Choppin noted.

Around this time each year, HHMI also holds "Holiday Lectures," featuring prominent investigators whose talks before a live audience at Hughes headquarters on Connecticut Ave. are broadcast on the Web, Choppin said. "Three years ago, (Nobel laureate) Dr. Thomas Cech gave these lectures, and in January he will take over presidency of the institute."

Choppin said HHMI "will continue to play an important role in private support of biomedicine. But pluralism of support is important in making this country the envy of the world in graduate education and biomedical research."

He said HHMI's flexibility allows it to move more rapidly than the government can in newly emerging fields such as structural biology. In 1985-1986, "within 11 months we got an advisory committee together on structural biology, solicited applications, identified leading laboratories, and funded beamline studies. It's very difficult for any government to move that rapidly."

He said Hughes has staying power in fields that are particularly intransient, and mentioned 9 years of work on the leptin gene by an HHMI scientist as evidence of the institute's ability "to support people rather than projects."

HHMI also has spent $270 million since 1984 on new laboratory construction, and $85 million in renovations. "About 7 percent of the HHMI budget is devoted to equipment now," Choppin added.

He recalled a frightening visit by staff from the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment not long after he assumed presidency of HHMI. "They asked me, 'What is it the federal government can stop doing now that you're here?' I assured them that we were no substitute."

Choppin said he is especially pleased when his institute can work directly with NIH, as in the Cloister program here on campus, or in a program that trains Montgomery County science teachers on campus, or when Hughes money filled a gap in an NIH mouse genome sequencing project at Washington University.

The lecture ended with a brief question session, during which it emerged that more than 70 percent of HHMI investigators also hold NIH grants.

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