Begun as the one-room Laboratory of Hygiene in 1887, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) today is one of the world’s foremost medical research centers and the federal focal point for health research in the United States.
The NIH mission is science in pursuit of fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to extend healthy life and reduce the burdens of illness and disability. The goals of the agency are to
NIH works toward meeting those goals by providing leadership, direction, and grant support to programs designed to improve the health of the nation through research in the
Composed of 27 separate institutes and centers, NIH is one of eight health agencies of the Public Health Service within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH encompasses 75 buildings on more than 300 acres in Bethesda, Md., as well as facilities at several other sites in the United States. The NIH budget has grown from about $300 in 1887 to more than $27.8 billion in 2004.
One of NIH’s principal concerns is to invest wisely the tax dollars entrusted to it for the support and conduct of this research. Approximately 82 percent of the investment is made through grants and contracts supporting research and training in more than 2,000 research institutions throughout the United States and abroad. In fact, NIH grantees are located in every state in the country. These grants and contracts make up the NIH Extramural Research Program.
Approximately 10 percent of the budget goes to NIH’s Intramural Research Programs, the more than 2,000 projects conducted mainly in its own laboratories. These projects are central to the NIH scientific effort. First-rate intramural scientists collaborate with one another regardless of institute affiliation or scientific discipline and have the intellectual freedom to pursue their research leads in NIH’s own laboratories.
These explorations range from basic biology to behavioral research, to studies on treatment of major diseases.
The grant-making process begins with an idea that an individual scientist describes in a written application for a research grant. The project might be small, or it might involve millions of dollars. The project might become useful immediately as a diagnostic test or new treatment, or it might involve studies of basic biological processes whose clinical value may not be apparent for many years.
Each research grant application undergoes peer review. A panel of scientific experts, primarily from outside the government, who are active and productive researchers in the biomedical sciences, first evaluates the scientific merit of the application. Then, a national advisory council or board, composed of eminent scientists as well as members of the public who are interested in health issues or the biomedical sciences, determines the project’s overall merit and priority in advancing the research agenda of the particular NIH funding institutes.
About 38,500 research and training applications are reviewed annually through the NIH peer-review system. At any given time, NIH supports 35,000 grants in universities, medical schools, and other research and research training institutions, both nationally and internationally.
The roster of people who have conducted NIH research or who have received NIH support over the years includes some of the world’s most illustrious scientists and physicians. Among them are 115 winners of Nobel Prizes for achievements as diverse as deciphering the genetic code and identifying the causes of hepatitis.
Five Nobelists made their prize-winning discoveries in NIH laboratories. You can learn more about Nobelists who have received NIH support at http://www.nih.gov/about/almanac/nobel/ index.htm.
Through its research, NIH has played a major role in making possible many achievements over the past few decades, including
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) conducts and supports research on many diseases that affect public health, including diabetes, hepatitis, and glomerulonephritis (a serious kidney disease). Other disorders that affect metabolism, the endocrine system, blood, and digestive and urological organs are also in the Institute’s research portfolio.
To learn how people develop these diseases and how to cure them, NIDDK supports researchers at universities and teaching hospitals around the country and in its own labs in Bethesda, Maryland, and Phoenix, Arizona. The Institute’s researchers also collaborate with scientists from other institutes of the National Institutes of Health, other governmental agencies, and the private sector who are interested in similar problems.
Investigators and institutions interested in the scientific areas supported by NIDDK compete for a wide variety of grants to do basic and clinical research. Basic researchers tackle fundamental questions about biological processes. How fat cells develop, how beta cells (the pancreas’s insulin-producing cells) function, and how to introduce foreign genes into humans are basic research questions of interest to NIDDK. On the clinical side, NIDDK funds physician researchers and other healthcare professionals to evaluate new treatments for diseases. Those treatments can be pharmacological or behavioral or both. In a recent clinical trial sponsored by NIDDK and several other groups, researchers showed that lifestyle changes—eating less and moving more—could significantly lower the chances of developing diabetes for people at high risk for the disease.
Funding is also available for conferences and workshops where scientists can share information, for training young scientists and physicians who wish to pursue scientific careers, and for small businesses developing innovative technologies of use to the research community.
NIDDK-sponsored researchers represent many fields of science, among them biochemistry, developmental and cell biology, computer science, epidemiology, genetics, physiology, pharmacology, physics, and mathematics. NIDDK is especially interested in nutrition and energy balance, the subject of this curriculum supplement. Energy balance gone awry—meaning that people eat more calories than they burn off—contributes significantly to obesity, which, in turn, is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes and other diseases. Obesity and type 2 diabetes, once considered a disease of middle age, are both on the rise in young people. An estimated 15 percent of children aged 6 to 19 years are overweight.
For more information about NIDDK, visit its Web site at http://www.niddk.nih.gov.