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Basic science: Bedrock of progress

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Science  25 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6280, pp. 1405
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6280.1405-a

Almost 4 years ago, one of us (F.S.C.) wrote an Editorial (1) affirming the continued importance of basic research to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mission. The Editorial emphasized that basic scientific discovery is the engine that powers the biomedical enterprise, and NIH continues to spend more than half its budget supporting basic research projects. This is critical, because the private sector generally funds projects that yield a more rapid return on investment.

Despite these assurances, some members of the community believe that NIH's interest in basic science is flagging. For example, investigators have told us that the requirement for a “Public Health Relevance” statement in every NIH research grant application suggests that every project must relate directly to a public health concern—that NIH places less value on projects that cannot be expected to yield an immediate public health benefit. This is simply not true. As we wrote in our Strategic Plan (2), we recognize that many of the most important medical advances trace back to basic research that had no explicit disease link. To address this concern, we have revised our application instructions (3) so that the Public Health Relevance statement reflects the NIH mission and our commitment to supporting a robust, diverse research portfolio, including the pursuit of basic biological knowledge.

PHOTO: ©PHIL DEGGINGER/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

We are particularly concerned that misperceptions about NIH's priorities and interests may be causing investigators to submit fewer basic research applications. For example, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) noticed a gradual and significant decline in the number of basic grants awarded between 1997 and 2012 (4). This decrease in awards was not a consequence of peer review given that basic grant applications actually did substantially better in review than applied research proposals. Instead, the major driver of this decline was a decrease in the number of fundamental basic research applications submitted.

The taxpayer investment in NIH has yielded spectacular returns from basic science over the long term. These range from the discoveries of the low-density lipoprotein receptor (5) and the development of CRISPR-associated protein-9 nuclease (6, 7) to recent substantial advances in structural biology through cryo-electron microscopy (8). For this track record of success to continue, we must continue our vigorous support of the pursuit of fundamental knowledge. All of NIH's senior leaders believe strongly that progress toward these goals occurs most rapidly when investigators pursue their passions, whether they lie in basic research or in applied, disease-focused studies. By supporting a broad portfolio of basic, translational, population, and clinical research, NIH will continue to lead the way toward a healthier future.

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