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National Institute of General Medical Sciences Strategic Plan

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Why Basic Research?

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Why Basic Research?

James Thomson derived the first human embryonic stem cell line and recently reprogrammed skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. Photo by Jeff Miller, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
James Thomson derived the first human embryonic stem cell line and recently reprogrammed skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. Photo by Jeff Miller, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences is committed to encouraging and supporting basic biomedical and behavioral research in which scientists explore the unknown. Important medical advances have grown from the pursuit of curiosity about fundamental questions in biology, physics, and chemistry1. For example:

  • A scientist studying marine snails found a powerful new drug for chronic pain.
  • Studying how electricity affects microbes led to a widely used cancer medicine.
  • A total surprise in a roundworm experiment yielded RNA interference, a gene-silencing method that has revolutionized medical research.
  • Basic research on how bacterial “scissors” chop up DNA from invading viruses spawned the biotechnology industry.

At the outset, none of these discoveries related directly to a specific medical or practical problem—and some of them took decades to come to fruition. While basic research sometimes leads directly to health applications, the usual outcome of basic research is knowledge, rather than a product. That knowledge is common currency for all biomedical scientists—those researchers working on specific diseases, as well as biomedical explorers who strive to understand basic principles of the human body and mind.

NIGMS Mission


The NIGMS mission is to support research that increases understanding of life processes and lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. NIGMS-funded researchers seek to answer important scientific questions in fields such as cell biology, biophysics, genetics, developmental biology, pharmacology, physiology, biochemistry, chemistry, bioinformatics, computational biology, and selected cross-cutting clinical areas that affect multiple organ systems. NIGMS also provides leadership in training the next generation of scientists to assure the vitality and continued productivity of the research enterprise.

Scientists conducting basic biomedical research often use model organisms to answer questions. Many processes that are fundamental to health and disease are very similar in humans, animals, and even single-celled organisms such as bacteria and yeast. Studies directed at addressing simple questions in these model organisms can often provide insights that have considerable relevance to human health.

The power of this remarkable unity of biology—a consequence of the fact that all organisms on Earth are descendants of a common ancestor—has been greatly enhanced by the success of the Human Genome Project and other genome-sequencing projects that were enabled by many years of NIGMS funding. Through the common language of DNA, results from model organisms can be more readily, and rapidly, related to human health than ever before.

Fluorescently labeled cells confirm computational
predictions about where various medicines and chemicals accumulate inside cells. Courtesy of Gus Rosania, University of Michigan.
Fluorescently labeled cells confirm computational predictions about where various medicines and chemicals accumulate inside cells. Courtesy of Gus Rosania, University of Michigan.

Of the above examples, one in particular—the $40 billion biotechnology industry2 —has produced tangible economic benefit to the nation through increased productivity and job creation. Biotechnology has proven to be a major force in modern medicine, having enabled drug manufacturers to create novel and effective treatments, such as therapeutic antibodies, that have few side effects and that have revolutionized the way physicians treat some types of lymphoma and breast cancer.

No matter how counter-intuitive it may seem, basic research has proven over and over to be the lifeline of practical advances in medicine.
-NOBEL LAUREATE ARTHUR KORNBERG

Through these and other dividends of the Federal research investment, scientists have made great strides in helping Americans live longer and healthier lives. Yet our work is far from done. To attack complex diseases of today such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and many other chronic conditions, we need more knowledge. We need basic research to understand the full complexity of disease processes, including what happens in the body years before symptoms show up.

79 percent of Americans agree that basic science research should be supported by the Federal Government, “even if it brings no immediate benefits.”
79 percent of Americans agree that basic science research should be supported by the Federal Government, “even if it brings no immediate benefits.”3

Many of today’s therapies have significant limitations. Treatments that are applied after the onset of serious disease—kidney transplants and dialysis, bypass surgery for coronary artery disease, surgical removal of tumors—though often lifesaving, are not optimal. Treating disease before such interventions are needed would likely improve both outcomes and quality of life. Basic biomedical research has the power to move treatments in this direction, and in the coming years, emerging biotechnology and nanotechnology tools will give researchers unprecedented precision to detect and derail disease at its earliest stages.

As an example of how basic research helps to fuel rapid progress in developing new and safer treatments and prevention strategies, one recent analysis4 suggested that a $1 increase in public basic research stimulated approximately $8 of pharmaceutical research and development investment in less than a decade.

In 2006, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget allocation totaled $28 billion, roughly half of the pharmaceutical industry’s $55 billion research and development spending in the same period.5 Since the private sector spends the vast majority of its research dollars on translational and clinical research, NIH spending on basic research—roughly two-thirds of the NIH budget—is a critical balancing factor for the health of the overall national research enterprise.

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This page last reviewed on May 20, 2011