Several years ago, my colleagues and I analyzed the diversity of disease research supported by NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and wrote about the importance of maintaining a diverse scientific portfolio. In times of scarce resources, it is tempting to prioritize investments that seem to offer a better promise of direct returns. In my current position as NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, I still feel strongly that maintaining a strong commitment to long-term goals and maintaining a diverse science portfolio ultimately balances risk and long- versus short-time pay-offs.
Basic science is an essential component of this diverse portfolio. NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability. This fundamental knowledge is obtained through research that addresses a specific health need, as well as through basic research that supports a broad understanding of human behavior and biology. Over half of NIH’s research funding supports basic research, as shown in the figure below provided by the NIH Office of Budget. We have heard that some think that NIH’s interest in supporting basic science is waning; indeed, there are some indications that this belief is driving a decrease in the number of basic research applications submitted to NIH.
All of the NIH institute and center directors, along with myself and other NIH leaders, joined NIH Director Francis Collins in signing a letter to the editor of Science, reiterating NIH’s commitment to basic science. We have also clarified application instructions for the public health relevance statement, to better reflect NIH’s mission and NIH’s support of a diverse research portfolio that may have short-term or long-term contributions to human health. Specifically, the instructions now read,
Using no more than two or three sentences, describe the relevance of this research to public health. For example, NIH applicants can describe how, in the short or long term, the research would contribute to fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and/or the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and/or reduce illness and disability.
It is our hope that this clarifies addressing how your research supports NIH’s mission, and reaffirms our commitment to the full breadth of scientific research.