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Funded by Science: HHMI Announces $60 Million Documentary Initiative

By Tamara Krinsky

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Photo: James E. Keely Jr.

Even when the economy is robust, documentary funding is hard to come by. So, during these tough times, when a major research nonprofit organization like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announces a $60 million initiative for science-oriented documentary features, it's a moment to celebrate.

"Film is the most powerful medium for bringing ideas, knowledge and stories to life and communicating them to any audience," said Sean B. Carroll, HHMI's vice president for science education, when he announced the project in Los Angeles this past February at the Summit on Science, Entertainment and Education, sponsored by the Science & Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences.

While the Chevy Chase, Maryland-based HHMI is primarily known for its accomplishments in biomedical research, the Institute also has a robust science education program, with a budget of over $70 million that spans many different areas and supports learning from kindergarten to professional levels. HHMI has funded television projects on a more modest scale in the past-including support for the PBS series NOVA scienceNOW and science reporting on PBS' NewsHour--but this is its first foray into the documentary film arena.

"Compelling films have the power to inspire people and nourish curiosity-which also happen to be central goals of our science education program," said HHMI President Robert Tjian in a statement.

When Carroll announced the program, he compared HHMI's role in developing the films to that of the National Geographic Society. Thus it makes perfect sense that the institute recently hired former National Geographic Television President Michael Rosenfeld to head the program. He began his new post as head of television and film for HHMI in mid-July.

"One of the things that's so attractive to me about joining HHMI is that it's a mission-driven organization that is very focused on quality," said Rosenfeld right before he started his new job. "Coming from National Geographic, those are two qualities that really spoke to me." 

Rosenfeld describes the initiative as an effort to broaden the discussion about science with not just researchers and the education community, but the American public at large. As he explains, "It comes in part from a commitment to putting out or disseminating really high-quality information about science and the scientific process, but also recognition that television is a very powerful medium and is a good way to reach the public with information about science."

HHMI has not committed to producing a set number of films, but Rosenfeld guesstimates that the $60 million fund, which will be spread over five years, might yield somewhere between 10 and 20 documentaries. The institute plans on generating ideas internally, as well as being open to pitches from the filmmaking community. At the same time that Rosenfeld and his staff are speaking with producers, they'll also be speaking with broadcasters. "We're not going to produce films and then find distribution for them," Rosenfeld explains. "Distribution will be part of the master plan. We are really trying to make the broadcasters part of the development process."

Key components for any project the institute takes on include the importance of the work being done and a high level of science journalism. Rosenfeld cites the PBS/National Geographic series Strange Days on Planet Earth as a model. Another criterion will be the kind of educational outreach a particular project might enable. Ideally, the HHMI staff will work hand-in-hand with filmmakers to repackage the film footage into materials that can be used by teachers and students at both the high school and college levels.

Science doesn't always lend itself to film; often, the work takes a long time to unfold and occurs at either microscopic or cosmic levels, which can be difficult to capture on camera. Rosenfeld, who has spent much of his career wrestling with the question of how to make science visual and engaging onscreen, believes that part of the answer is in recognizing that there is a lot of excitement in scientific work, and it's the job of creative, innovative filmmakers and producers to bring that out.

 "I think the right kind of science story lends itself to that narrative," Rosenfeld maintains. "All the great discoveries involve all the key ingredients that go into great stories--great obstacles, suspense, mystery...all those sorts of things. And then I think finally the science films that are the most memorable, that stay with us, get at the big questions that concern all people: Where do we come from? How does our world work? Where are we going?--the questions that are inherently compelling to people."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.