05/30/2012 06:16 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Initiative Promotes Science Education

In February the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report, titled "Engage to Excel," that highlights America's need to produce 1 million additional college graduates over the next decade with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In late May the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) committed $50 million to 47 small colleges and universities in the United States. Those schools will receive grants to enable them to work together to create more engaging science classes, bring real-world research experiences to students, and increase the diversity of students who study science. The hope is that they will engage more students and also create models that can be replicated at other academic institutions.

The PCAST and HHMI initiatives both greatly advance the educational infrastructure needed for our nation to excel in the 21st century as a global leader in science and technology and an economic powerhouse. The HHMI grants rightly enhance the sciences at, and promote collaboration among, our nation's small colleges and universities, which have long been recognized as playing an outsized role in educating students who go on to earn Ph.D.s in science.

"HHMI is investing in these schools," said Sean B. Carroll, its Vice President of Science Education, "because they have shown they are superb incubators of new ideas and models that might be replicated by other institutions to improve how science is taught in college."

As the former Dean of Natural Sciences at Hope College, one of the 47 grant recipients, I know how much grants of this size, in the range of $800,000 to $1.5 million over four years, can mean to a small institution. They make possible research and other explorations for talented faculty and students alike, providing the engaged teaching and hands-on experimentation that are so crucial to instilling a love of science. That engagement has a demonstrable impact both on the teaching of science and the advancement of science.

At Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the nation's oldest foundation devoted wholly to science, where I am now president, we analyzed recently the impact of grants that we have made over decades to many of these same small colleges and universities. Those grants were made through our Cottrell College Science Awards (CCSA). Our analysis shows the following:

  • Fifty percent of the students of science professors supported by CCSA grants proceed to graduate school.
  • Based on CCSA's history, the 237 active grant recipients will produce more than 450 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals illuminating developments in science.
  • Eighty-three percent of the undergraduates who received the prestigious Leroy Apker Award of the American Physical Society worked under the supervision of CCSA-funded faculty.
  • Eighty percent of faculty winners of the annual prizes for research in an undergraduate institution, awarded by the American Chemical Society and the American Physical Society, received CCSA funding near the beginning of their careers.
  • Since 1995, 63 percent of NSF-CAREER Chemistry recipients at primarily undergraduate institutions have been CCSA recipients.

This analysis provides just a glimpse of the lasting value of grant making in the sciences to these small colleges and universities. They don't have the research clout of the major research universities, but they play a crucial role in educating scientists of the future.

The HHMI initiative will also take those small colleges and universities to a new level of engagement by increasing collaboration among them. As HHMI President Robert Tjian said, "Collaboration is a vital activity that drives science forward. We believe that collaboration among institutions can have a similar catalytic effect on science education, and we look forward to seeing these schools work together to develop new science and teaching programs that inspire their students."

That's an exciting prospect. We've seen first-hand, through two programs at Research Corporation for Science Advancement -- Scialog® and the Cottrell Scholar Awards -- how collaboration across disciplines and among scientists at major research universities can inspire new approaches to complex problems of science and science education. Collaboration among scientists at small colleges and universities is just as likely to inspire creative thinking in both areas.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has raised the bar with this latest initiative, setting a new pace for grant making in science and science education. It should inspire increased collaboration among science-related philanthropies, as well.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which celebrates its Centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- this year.