A private U.S.-based philanthropic group has announced it will spend more than half a billion dollars to fund groundbreaking medical research in a multitude of fields. From Washington, VOA's Michael Bowman reports.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute says the $600-million initiative will focus on high-risk, high-reward areas of study where there is little or no guarantee of success, but where breakthroughs could lead to significant advances in fields ranging from epidemiology to genetics.

The institute, based outside Washington, says it will fund research into vexing questions such as the effect of global climate change on the spread of infectious diseases, as well as unconventional ideas such as the correlation between computer engineering and the human immune system.

The funds will be dispersed to 56 scientists from more than two dozen American universities and research institutions.

Every year, the U.S. government devotes tens of billions of dollars to scientific research. But observers note that federal funding has remained flat in recent years, boosting the need for other sources of grant money. Scientists say private funding is ideal for riskier ventures that might not gain government approval.

David Clayton is the medical institute's vice president for research operations.

"Our style of doing research does give people the courage to do things that are of higher risk," he explained.  "We will accept the fact that something that takes a big change scientifically is, by definition, more likely to fail. So, if there is a high risk taken on a problem that can be agreed was a problem worth tackling, and the individual fails, he will probably get renewed [for more funding]. It is a more forgiving system than one that has a lot of detailed reporting requirements and expects more steady-as-you-go progress."

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, named after the pioneering American aviator and filmmaker who died in 1976, is the largest private backer of biomedical research in the United States. More information can be found at HHMI.org.