John Hildebrand, Regents’ professor of neuroscience at the University of Arizona, was recently elected foreign secretary of the National Academy of Sciences.

He came to the UA in 1985 to establish the Division of Neurobiology in the Arizona Research Laboratories. He is the founding head of the UA Department of Neuroscience. Hildebrand is also an elected member of the German National Academy of Sciences and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

We picked his brain for thoughts on a variety of subjects:

On taking on a big responsibility as liaison to foreign countries on behalf of the U.S. science community at age 71:

“My mother always said, ‘If you are really busy and you have a reason to get up in the morning, you stay young.’”

On funding for basic scientific research:

“The federal government should have a mechanism for supporting ‘discovery’ research, and that was a guiding principle until fairly recently. Now there is kind of a meme that’s all about translation and application and forgetting about ‘discovery science’ — the fundamental science where you don’t know where you’re going but you can turn over a rock and find diamonds.”

On the academic brain drain:

“We’re losing human capital. What I’m seeing is more promising young scientists opting out, saying, ‘Farewell, academia.’”

The job market is shrinking along with research funds, Hildebrand said. First-time awardees of the National Institutes of Health now average 43 years of age, he said, and three recent studies have shown that academic researchers spend up to 41 percent of their allocated research time on nonresearch activities, such as writing grant proposals and meeting federal regulations.

On the rise of academic research elsewhere in the world:

Hildebrand said countries such as China and Japan, which have historically supplied graduate students to universities in the United States, are now creating programs to “seduce Americans” to their graduate programs. “I’m happy for them, but I’m not happy for what is happening here.”

On building a successful career and nabbing funding over four decades for studies on the brain structure of insects, notably the giant sphinx moth, Manduca sexta:

“People like us study insect brains and behavior not only because it’s fun and interesting, but also because we think they are little humans. It’s amazing. We sold that argument successfully to the NIH for years.”

On the applications of his basic research in insect neurobiology:

“Insects are important for human health and welfare. More than one-third of all plants used for food are destroyed by insects. Insects that suck blood are the vectors of the most devastating diseases.”

Hildebrand also worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to outfit Manduca moths with sensors and control their flight. With partners at MIT and the University of Washington “We got it to fly where we wanted it to, basically with a joystick. Science isn’t just pointy-headed discovery.”

On the UA’s plans to double the money that supports its research by expanding land-grant programs and partnerships with industry:

“As support gets worse and worse, what do you do?” Hildebrand asked.

He said he supports the UA’s push to expand its land-grant mission beyond the traditional role played by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The outreach efforts should only be seen as good, and shouldn’t be limited to agriculture. The partnerships with business? That’s happening all over the country.”

On what is needed to reverse the funding trend for basic research:

“We need another ‘Sputnik moment,’” he said. Hildebrand said he was a teenager in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. The United States responded by creating NASA, entering the space race and ramping up support for scientific research across the board.

His career benefited from federal support of science, and he said he’d like to work to restore it.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at or 573-4158.