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Strategic Plan 2020 – 2022


Strategic Plan 2020 – 2022 of the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization

The International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) is an international collaboration promoting global cooperation in frontier life science research. It was established in 1989 to implement the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP, “The Program”). The Strategic Plan 2020 - 2022 describes HFSPO’s strategic direction for the next three-year period.  The accompanying Program Activity Plan describes how this strategy is planned to be implemented.

HFSPO’s statutory objectives

HFSPO’s objective is to promote and fund basic research focused on the elucidation of the sophisticated and complex mechanisms of living organisms for the benefit of all humankind, through international cooperation. Statutes, Article 2.2. The Human Frontier Science Program funds high-risk, interdisciplinary, intercontinental, collaborative, fundamental life science research, with a philosophy of “science without borders”. It encourages innovative and novel thinking to support transformative and paradigm shifting research. Fundamental research benefits all humankind by advancing understanding of the complex mechanisms of life which provides the germination for developments in industry, health and human well-being. HFSPO aims to complement and not duplicate the life science research programs of individual countries.

Strategies 2020 - 2022

HFSPO’s strategies for 2020 - 2022 are built upon the achievements of the Program over the last 30 years. They take into account the findings of an International Scientific Review Committee (ISRC) which reported in 2018. HFSPO’s key strategies are to:

1. Continue to support the Program of frontier life science research and international collaboration through the Research Grants (Program and Emerging Investigators) and Fellowships (Long-Term and Cross-Disciplinary) schemes.

2. Increase the amount awarded to successful Research Grant and Fellowship applicants, in recognition of the growth in complexity, breadth and interdisciplinarity in the last three decades.

3. Discontinue the Career Development Award, now that similar schemes are available in many HFSPO Members.

4. Consider extending the Cross-Disciplinary Fellowships, which are unique to HFSPO, to four years.

5. Continue to use international peer review of the highest quality as the sole method of deciding which applications to recommend for funding.

6. Expand HFSPO membership to other leading life science research countries, encouraging all countries with excellence in basic life science research to apply for membership.

7. Promote international life science collaboration by working with others to promote growth and collaboration in life science research.

8. Establish the HFSPO Foundation1.

9. Communicate the achievements of the Program.

10. Continually seek to provide efficient and effective service to the HFSPO Members and the life science research community through professional, internationally-connected administration.


Explanation of strategy

The Board of Trustees believes that stimulating new scientific collaboration across disciplines and across the world remains as important to the future of the life sciences and to fostering international cooperation as ever.

Research Grants are available to international teams working across continents, using interdisciplinary approaches, with each team member working with their collaborator(s) for the first-time and on a new topic. Both Program Grants and Emerging Investigator Grants (previously Young Investigator Grants) will be offered. The Research Grant amounts have not been increased since 2002. HFSPO will consider an increase following issue of the Joint Communique at the Triennial Conference of HFSPO Members.

Postdoctoral Fellowships provide future leaders in frontier research from anywhere in the world with the opportunity to work in new fields carrying out high-risk and potentially transformative research in the most stimulating laboratories in a new country. By funding researchers who will be leaders in transformative frontier science in their own careers, the Fellowships represent HFSPO’s investment in the future. A recent comparison provided to the International Scientific Review Committee showed that the amounts of each Fellowship, last set in 2010, were no longer comparable to other highly prestigious awards. HFSPO will consider this following the Triennial Conference of HFSPO Members.

HFSPO’s Cross-Disciplinary Fellowship for non-biologists is a unique HFSP award. The Board will consider extending the duration of the Cross-Disciplinary Fellowship to four years. This is in recognition of the effects of a major change in direction for these scientists as they move into biology. Understandably,  they risk experiencing a lag before they achieve publications and outcomes compared to competitors with a Ph.D. in a biological field. This can be a handicap when competing for subsequent positions.

The decision to terminate the Career Development Award (CDA) was taken by the Board after consideration over recent years and upon the recommendation of both the Council of Scientists and the International Scientific Review Committee. Current CDA holders will of course be supported until the end of their award. The final application round will be that of 2019 (i.e. for applicants who applied before the Board’s decision). 


The portfolio of research and fellowship awards

HFSPO has supported 1090 international collaborative teams conducting interdisciplinary research since 1990 and 3157 young scientists through postdoctoral Fellowships. More than 100 Cross-Disciplinary Fellowships have now been awarded to scientists from fields other than biology – physicists, chemists, mathematicians, IT scientists and more – who have thereby brought a diversity of expertise, scientific approaches and perspectives to research into the complex mechanisms of life.

Success of awardees

Many of the scientists who have been supported by HFSPO have received great acclaim in their subsequent careers. This includes membership of National Academies and prestigious international science prizes2 (listed in HFSPO’s Annual Reports).

Twenty-eight scientists who have received HFSP awards have gone on to win a Nobel Prize, including Nobel Prizes for Physiology or Medicine, for Physics or for Chemistry. Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry attest to the success of HFSPO’s interdisciplinary approaches.

Many of these highly successful scientists ascribe their later success to the support for innovative higher risk research that the Program provided (see examples of awardees’ articles on the HFSP website).

HFSP Nakasone Awards

The HFSP Nakasone Award is made to scientists who have undertaken frontier-moving research in biology, encompassing conceptual, experimental or technological breakthroughs. The award recognizes the vision of former Prime Minister Nakasone of Japan in the creation of HFSP. 

HFSP Nakasone Award winners

2010 - Karl Deisseroth for his work on the application of microbial opsins as “optogenetic” tools in neurobiology.

2011 - Michael Elowitz for studies on gene expression noise.

2012 - Gina Turrigiano for introducing the concept of homeostatic synaptic plasticity.

2013 - Stephen Quake for his work in advancing biological measurement techniques.

2014 - Uri Alon for his work on network motifs.

2015 - James Collins for his work on synthetic gene networks and programmable cells.

2016 - Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for their work on the CRISPR-Cas 9 system.

2017 - David Julius for his discovery of the molecular mechanism of thermal sensing in animals.

2018 - Svante Pääbo for his discovery of the extent to which hybridization with Neanderthals and Denisovans has shaped the evolution of modern humans, and his development of techniques for sequencing DNA from fossils.

2019 - Michael Hall for the discovery of the master regulator of cell growth, the target of rapamycin (TOR) kinase.

2020 - Angelika Amon for discovering aneuploidy-induced cellular changes and their contribution to tumorigenesis.

2021 -  Anthony Hyman and Clifford Brangwynne for their discovery of a new state of biological matter, phase-separated macromolecule condensates, that play an important role in cell organisation, gene regulation, signalling and pathology

2022 - Franz-Ulrich Hartl and Arthur L. Horwich for their discoveries revealing the functions and mechanisms of chaperone-mediated protein folding and the implication of their work in understanding human disease.

2022 - Aviv Regev for unravelling the biological processes controlling cellular phenotype through innovative computational, mathematical, and experimental approaches applied to single-cell genomics.


Promoting international life sciences

HFSPO provides additional intellectual leadership by bringing expertise from around the world to address issues that face the life sciences now and might impede the advance of the frontier. HFSPO holds annual meetings of those who have recently been awarded Research Grants and Fellowships to stimulate additional collaborations, transformative ideas and the ambitions of these outstanding scientists. Additionally, HFSPO holds small, targeted workshops of international leaders on specific issues of global interest in basic life sciences. For example, the Secretary-General and staff of HFSPO have been working with other leading organizations around the world on the value and sustainability of the key life science data resources3, on discussions of implementation of the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) principles in peer review in basic research, and on the physical sciences/life sciences interface. All of these are areas of importance to HFSPO’s mission of the “promotion and funding of research into the sophisticated and complex mechanisms of life.”

Delivering on the mission to “benefit all humankind”

The founders of HFSPO were prescient when they stipulated that research in the Program should be fundamental research, but added that it should also be “for the benefit of all humankind.” HFSPO’s funding of basic research through the Program has resulted in changes in research paradigms. The Program has built stronger foundations for future research and opened up new important areas for research. It has launched and boosted the careers of numerous scientists who continue to undertake innovative, riskier frontier research throughout the world. It has provided new tools and methodologies for global life science researchers. There have also been many practical gains.  Basic research is the germination point from which grows the later development of valuable products, policies and practices. Examples of where basic frontier research supported by HFSPO has led to practical benefits can be found in the following table.

Examples where basic research later led to significant applied benefits 

New tools to improve vaccinations - HFSPO funded a research project by Jean-Luc Popot and international collaborators Edward A. Berry and Catherine Vénien-Bryan (2000) to develop synthetic polymers with the basic aim “to advance basic cell membrane research.” These tools called “amphipols” have now found myriads of purposes, including in vaccination where they stabilize biochemically and physically the membrane proteins used as immunogens. Read more >

Novel new adhesives - In 2012, Duncan J. Irschick and Alfred Crosby from UMass Amherst, USA, together with Walter Federle, University of Cambridge, UK, were awarded an HFSP Research Grant to investigate which kind of adhesive mechanisms animals, such as geckos, use when climbing smooth surfaces. This team is now developing new and better adhesives based on the principles learned from this research: for example, small patch-like adhesives that can hold amazing loads and stick to even smooth surfaces. Read more >

Treating basal cell carcinoma - In 1993, HFSPO supported a basic science project by Andrew McMahon, Clifford Tabin and Philip Ingham to investigate fundamental mechanisms that regulate the development of the early mid-hindbrain region in vertebrates, studying zebrafish, chick and mouse. The initial aim of these researchers was to unravel the regulation of gene expression patterns during vertebrate brain development, particularly whether the signaling molecule hedgehog found in the fruitfly was also important in vertebrates. The unexpected findings of that project have led to a new treatment of the common skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, in patients. Read more >

Living antibiotics - In 2005, Elizabeth Sockett led an HFSP funded Research Grant team to investigate Bdellovibrio bacteria as tiny predators due to their secretive way of growing inside other bacteria. The project not only illuminated new ways in how bacteria grow and divide, but also how Bdellovibrio consume prey bacterial contents and act as an anti-pathogen. This work laid the foundation for current studies using Bdellovibrio as a promising strategy for antibacterial therapy in an immunological context. Read more >

A recently commissioned report found that HFSP Long-Term Fellows produce three times more patents than the international norm4. We highlight the benefits through reports written by HFSPO supported scientists published each month on the HFSP website (see the News & Events section). These provide many more examples of where the original basic ideas have led to often surprising new beneficial developments. 

Expanding the membership of HFSPO

Membership of HFSPO is recognition of the excellence of basic life sciences in the member country or union of countries (HFSPO Members). Countries and unions of countries that are currently members include the original G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and USA) together with the European Commission (1989), Switzerland (1990), the Republic of Korea (2004), Australia (2004), New Zealand (2006), India (2006), Norway (2008) and Singapore (2014). HFSPO has recently welcomed Israel’s application for membership. 


HFSPO depends on the voluntary financial contributions provided by the 15 HFSPO Members. Further support in kind is provided by HFSPO Members through their Management Supporting Parties and especially by the Japanese government agency AMED which seconds an administrative officer to the Secretariat in Strasbourg. In 2019-2020, AMED has also seconded a scientific officer. The 2019 Triennial Conference of HFSPO Members in Tokyo in 2019 will agree the triennial funding to be provided by each HFSPO Member. HFSPO particularly acknowledges the commitments of the numerous leading scientists from HFSPO Members who provide peer review each year. 

Note: An HFSPO Program Activity Plan is published annually and describes how the Strategic Plan will be implemented. 

1Board of Trustees decision out of session, 12 April 2018.

2Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences, CNRS Gold and Silver Medals, Daiwa Adrian Prize, Leibniz Award, EMBO Gold Medal, European Inventor Award, Brain Prize, Balzan Prize, Japan Academy Prize, Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, Louis Jeantet Prize, National Medal of Science, NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, Robert Koch Prize, Heineken Prize, Shaw Prize, Gairdner Foundation International Prize.

3In 2019 and 2020, this work will continue as a cost-neutral and time-limited activity.

4Science Metrix ‘Review of the Human Frontier Science Program’ Final Report, 7 September 2018, Executive Summary.

Legal status
The International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (“HFSPO”) is an Association with international membership, governed by the local law on Associations applicable in the Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin and Moselle (Articles 21 to 79 IV of the Local Civil Code [Code Civil Local]), France (