Why I Give
Stephen H. Howell
“Support for basic research is to find out about the world around us. Fundamental plant research enhances our culture, expands our horizons, and helps us to appreciate the wonders of the living world,” said Stephen Howell, a professor and former director of the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State University in Ames.
Howell chooses to make the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) a philanthropic constant because of his belief that the institute is a world-class leader in fundamental plant research, and that its work improves humanity’s quality of life.
His laboratory at Iowa State studies how plants tolerate environmental stresses, such as heat, drought, flooding, and salt. Ultimately, he hopes that his work will yield hardier crops—for both food and biofuel.
Howell is also a former project leader and vice president for research at BTI, and is intimately familiar with the challenges and triumphs of conducting plant research. He joined BTI in 1988 as the first Boyce Schulze Downey Scientist—a position now held by Professor Greg Martin—after being recruited by then-President and CEO Ralph Hardy. Upon joining, he was impressed to learn that BTI’s founder, William Boyce Thompson, felt inspired to endow a plant research institute after he witnessed failed crops and starvation on a trip to Russia just after the 1917 revolution.
He was also struck by BTI’s efficiency. As a small, independent research facility, a scientist “could access the business of the Institute from top to bottom just by walking down the hall,” he remarked.
During his time at BTI, Howell founded and served as the director of the Plant Molecular Biology Program at BTI, and later became vice president for research in 1997. He is especially proud of having recruited David Stern, the current president and CEO, to BTI in 1989. But in 2001, his home state of Iowa called and he returned to take a position as director of the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State.
Despite the years that have passed since his tenure at BTI, Howell is happy to support the institute and its innovative plant research. These donations ensure that BTI scientists can continue to make discoveries into fundamental issues concerning agriculture, the environment, and human health.
“Academic plant scientists are in the business to do good for the world,” he said. “They are frustrated when their efforts are interpreted as not being in the best interests of mankind.” Because, at the basic level, everything they do is related to plants.
Howell has spent time on the other side of the funding equation as well. From 2009 to 2011 he served as the division director of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia. He observed that federal funding for basic research has remained flat for the last decade. The grant application process has become more competitive and the dollars available per researcher has declined. This trend hits young scientists especially hard. Recent scientific breakthroughs have created new opportunities for research, especially in regard to the handling of “big data.” With fewer dollars to support these projects, private funds can provide critical support for the work of early-career scientists and enable pioneering research. These discoveries can yield positive applications in the future.
“Some of the fruits of this research help to feed and fuel us and to improve our stewardship of the natural environment,” he said. So, in a small way, his support of molecular research can have a big impact toward solving global problems.