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Johns Hopkins University
(Baltimore, MD)
The Pioneer Fund for Basic Science Research

Since its founding as the nation’s first research university, Johns Hopkins has helped improve the human condition in countless ways. Much of this progress was achieved by first advancing fundamental knowledge about ourselves and our world.  Fundamental scientific investigations are pursued for the sake of understanding – to expand our general knowledge – and are not aimed at solving practical problems directly. But they are vital. The new knowledge these inquiries generate forms the bedrock on which future, often unimagined, innovations rest. Discovery at the most basic levels of scientific inquiry is the wellspring that makes possible the improvement of life on Earth.

The more basic the finding, the more far-reaching its effects. Michael Faraday could not have known that his discovery of electromagnetic induction in 1831 would lead to the invention of the motor. Virtually all mechanistic understanding of disease, all current treatments and diagnostic tools, are founded in basic science discovery. With no practical application in mind, curiosity-driven research may take us anywhere. At Johns Hopkins, it has led to scores of seminal discoveries in the physical and life sciences. Those that earned the Nobel Prize include the identification of molecular scissors that made it possible to manipulate genes, thereby launching the field of molecular genetics (from genomic medicine to the biotechnology industry) and the astonishing revelation that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.      

Federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have long provided the lion’s share of support for basic research at American universities. But these resources have been contracting for years. This trajectory threatens the sustainability of the current research enterprise on which future innovations – and the economic and social benefits they will produce – depend. Worse, as federal resources tighten and public accountability intensifies, government funding is increasingly focused on investigations that are well-developed and closer to application. Early-stage creative exploration aimed at fundamental enlightenment is a luxury in today’s conservative funding climate. The plight of young researchers in particular is especially dire, as their ability to compete with seasoned investigators for limited federal funds continues to decline. This trend will surely constrict the pipeline of knowledge-driven discovery by discouraging future careers in basic scientific research.

No one can predict where basic research and the knowledge it produces will lead. But no one can deny that such research – or its absence – will define how we live.

Now is the time for bold new investments. Johns Hopkins University is committed to fortifying the future of fundamental research. The Pioneer Fund for Basic Science Research offers an opportunity to ensure that the most worthy fundamental inquiries at Johns Hopkins – from neuroscience to nanobiotechnology to astrophysics – can and will be pursued.

Seeking Breakthrough Science

The Pioneer Fund for Basic Science Research will support an unlimited range of investigations in the physical and life sciences, with no assumptions about where the most exciting ideas may emerge. And while the Pioneer Fund for Basic Science Research focuses on basic rather than applied research, it provides an opportunity to seed creative ideas that can shed light on some of society’s most vexing questions, pointing the way to the solution of significant real-world problems. The following grand challenges are just a few examples of investigative areas of strategic importance to Johns Hopkins – areas where faculty excel and where new fundamental knowledge promises enormous societal benefits.

Understanding How the Normal Brain Functions

It weighs only three pounds, but the human brain is the most complex system in the universe.  Advances in molecular biology, technology, and computation have set the stage for exponential growth in deciphering how the brain’s 100 billion cells conspire to create consciousness, coordinate movement, store memories, enable speech, control behavior, and so much more. Johns Hopkins was on the frontline of neuroscience long before the term was coined in the 1960s. The Neuroscience Department’s first chairman, Solomon Snyder, wondered how opiate drugs like heroin grip the nervous system – an inquiry that led to discoveries critical to the relief of pain and addiction. Today, the University is uniting its strengths in neuroscience, engineering, and data science to interrogate the inner workings of the brain in exciting new ways, searching for answers to the most difficult questions: How do we perceive, understand, react, and remember? Answering those questions will provide the means to prevent and treat some of humanity’s most disabling illnesses. Diseases of the nervous system – such as memory disorders, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s – affect nearly one-third of Americans at some point in their lives, at a cost of more than $500 billion every year. Filling critical gaps in our knowledge about how the brain functions will yield enormous returns, such as the ability to ameliorate the devastating consequences of stroke, to repair the injured nervous system, and to reveal how environmental factors cause neurons to die.

Developing New Materials for Energy and Sustainability

Wise stewardship of natural energy resources lies at the heart of securing a healthy and prosperous future for all people. Meeting these stewardship challenges is a matter of materials – the stuff out of which civilization is built. Faculty members in materials science and engineering at Johns Hopkins are at the forefront of discovering new materials and streamlining their translation from the laboratory to the marketplace, where they can contribute to real-world solutions. A livable future on Earth depends on continued investment in the basic science associated with developing innovative materials for energy and sustainability. Fundamental research already under way at Johns Hopkins illustrates the promise of materials science. For example, current projects are paving the way to:

  • facilitate development of new processes that can transform abundant natural gas into high-strength carbon fiber (providing, for example, much lighter material for vehicles) and clean-burning hydrogen;
  • enable the manufacture and use of fertilizers without secondary carbon dioxide emissions or the pollution of streams and rivers;
  • pull carbon dioxide from the air and transform it into fuels; and
  • create new materials that can withstand and protect us from the extreme environments of space.

Elucidating the Basic Science of Human Disease

The Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences (IBBS) promotes the fundamental research that drives advances in medicine. The Institute’s 120 laboratories interrogate the living world at all levels, from the miniscule molecular machines that read DNA and fuel cellular growth to the genetics of human populations. The Institute’s interdisciplinary Centers are focused on five critical areas: epigenetics; cellular dynamics; sensation; metabolic control; and systems biology in health and disease. The work of these Centers has informed our understanding of a broad spectrum of disease, including cancer, autism, sensory loss, obesity, chronic pain and age-related disorders).

  • The Epigenetics Center – the only one of its kind in the nation – is revealing how cells establish, maintain, and lose control of genes. These processes are relevant not only for most cancers, but also for neurobehavioral diseases such as stroke and dementia, for human development, for most chronic diseases, and for environmental effects on human health.
  • The Center for Human Systems Biology is dedicated to the predictive understanding of complex biological functions in health and disease through the application of data science and experimentation. The Center exploits the power of genomic information through construction of genetic, biochemical and physical tools for interrogation of biological systems; the development of computational methods to infer function from large data sets; and the manipulation of natural or synthetic biological models to test hypotheses suggested by high-throughput analysis.
  • The Center for Sensory Biology studies the fundamental processes underlying all of the primary senses – vision, touch, pain, taste, smell, and hearing – essential for our ability to interact with the world around us. The Center is the first in the world to bring together research in all these sensory modalities, and work there is aimed at understanding normal function as well as disease states such as blindness, hearing loss, and chronic pain.
  • The Center for Cell Dynamics seeks to understand the complex behaviors of cells, including their ability to maintain their shape and structure, as well as to change shape and migrate – as is characteristic of metastatic cancer cells. These functions require tens of thousands of biochemical reactions in living cells every second, which Center investigators observe in real time using new technologies they have developed. This work already has advanced our understanding of cancer metastasis.
  • The Center for Metabolism and Obesity Research addresses two of the most urgent global health problems: obesity and diabetes. Center researchers are concentrating on answering three questions that are key to controlling these devastating conditions: How do cells use sugars and fats to build molecules required for survival? How do cells regulate the conversion of food into energy? And how does the body regulate levels of hormones and other chemicals in response to available nutrients? With a focus on cellular-level metabolism, researchers from a range of disciplines are exploring factors that influence cell survival, growth, and aging.

Advancing the Science of Big Data

Today’s scientific instruments and computer simulations are churning out data about natural phenomena at exponential rates – a data deluge that is hurtling modern science toward an impasse. Massive datasets represent an unprecedented resource for advancing knowledge, but their sheer size and complexity confound our ability to extract meaning from them. Faculty at Johns Hopkins were among the first to recognize both the promise of Big Data and the impending investigative brick wall. More than two decades ago they began pioneering solutions, gaining an early worldwide lead by building an astronomy data archive equivalent to the Human Genome Project. Continued success in manipulating Big Data will be transformational, enabling fundamental discoveries and advances that are currently out of reach, and speeding progress in all scientific fields. Critical applications of new knowledge generated from large datasets are already being pursued at Johns Hopkins. Here, Big Data science is propelling needed transformations in health care, including controlling costs; identifying optimum prevention and treatment strategies; fine-tuning the ability to protect and preserve the environment, anticipate natural disasters, and reduce the threat from emerging diseases; and revealing the origins and fate of the universe.

Big questions such as those outlined above will continue to generate some of the most inspired thinking at the level of fundamental inquiry, but any area within the physical and life sciences may be the source of the most competitive Pioneer Fund proposals. We will seek to strike a balance in our investments between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ opportunities, encouraging creativity relevant to major strategic areas of research as well as independent pursuits driven by inspiration.

A Proven Model

Reflecting the University’s commitment to creating knowledge for the world despite declining federal resources, Johns Hopkins has allocated institutional funds to foster individual and interdisciplinary discovery research and the creative work of early-career faculty through competitive award programs. The caliber of proposed scientific projects has been stellar, but available resources can satisfy only 10 percent of the demand. “We are leaving amazing science unfunded,” said Vice Provost for Research Denis Wirtz.

While none of these popular award programs is dedicated exclusively to basic investigation, they offer a successful model for attracting and identifying outstanding ideas and giving them the tailwind they need. The Pioneer Fund for Basic Science Research will follow that lead in building vital philanthropic resources to expand the frontiers of imagination and insight in the physical and life sciences. It will be managed by the office of the Vice Provost for Research using a well-honed, highly effective process of internal peer review to select the best of the best. This process employs a large review panel of diverse faculty who have no conflicts of interest with the applicants and who include non-experts in the fields under consideration. Proposals are reviewed by individual panelists and scored. Finalists are discussed by the panel as a whole, resulting in two careful reviews of each top-ranked project.

Making Strategic Investments

The Pioneer Fund for Basic Science Research will address a crisis in university-based fundamental research. Faculty members in their formative years are the driving force of discovery. But just as they reach their stride, they confront a powerful set of hurdles. Start-up funds that launched the researcher’s career are now depleted, and securing external sources of support today is challenging even for more seasoned faculty.

At the same time, the new professor’s responsibilities rapidly multiply. These include: embarking on a second major line of research; demonstrating competence in that work through groundbreaking publications; securing funds to support a research group with PhD students and postdoctoral fellows; assuming an increasing teaching load; undertaking a variety of university committee obligations; and devoting time to reviewing federal proposals. The most onerous pressure, however, comes from the sharp decline in funding success rates, which means that for every successful proposal, a scientist needs to submit many more applications.

It is fair to say that this transition represents a highly vulnerable period in an academic research career – a phase that has been characterized as one of “piling on responsibilities and expectations without any extra money to compensate, so that these faculty members have to scavenge for funding to survive.” Yet, this is the very time in academic careers when Nobel Prize winning work is typically done.

The Pioneer Fund for Basic Science Research will assist faculty who are in this crucial period – the first three to 10 years of their careers – when they are most creative, but also most vulnerable and in need of support. The Pioneer Fund for Basic Science Research will offer seed funding to explore the merits of early-stage, innovative research ideas that are not sufficiently developed to compete for conservative federal dollars. We anticipate that hundreds of young faculty will respond to this opportunity, and that a large fraction of their proposals will be highly meritorious. The Fund will also support more expansive investigations that encompass multiple fields of study, as well as audacious proposals of great promise, with no restrictions on the rank of the applicants.

Given the urgency to provide new resources for faculty in their most vulnerable years, the Pioneer Fund for Basic Science Research seeks contributions that can be used immediately. Pioneer Fund grants for individual research projects would ideally provide between $25,000 and $75,000 each, which has been shown in other institutional award programs to be a productive range of support. Seed grants for multidisciplinary projects conducted by groups of collaborators would ideally be offered in the amount of $100,000 to $150,000 each. In the future, as the Fund builds a strong donor base, it may be possible to establish a sustaining endowment.

As a society, we undervalue basic research at our peril. From penicillin to lasers, our well-being and lifestyle have been shaped by discoveries that were driven by the desire to understand ourselves and our world, and fueled by sheer inspiration. The Pioneer Fund for Basic Science Research will help ensure that the quest for fundamental knowledge in the physical and life sciences at Johns Hopkins remains viable and strong, and that its unforeseen benefits will not be lost to humankind.