Doing Science: The Process of Scientific Inquiry
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National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Doing Science: The Process of Scientific Inquiry

Main    Getting Started    Teacher's Guide    Student Activities    About NIH and NIGMS

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About NIH

About the National Institutes of Health

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Mission and Goals

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 $28 billion in 2005.

Research Programs

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.

Grant-Making Process

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.

NIH Nobelists

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

Impact on the Nation’s Health

Through its research, NIH has played a major role in making possible many achievements over the past few decades, including

Science Education

Science education by NIH and its institutes contributes to ensuring the continued supply of well-trained basic research and clinical investigators, as well as the myriad professionals in the many allied disciplines who support the research enterprise. These efforts also help educate people about scientific results so that they can make informed decisions about their own—and the public’s—health.

This curriculum supplement is one such science education effort, a collaboration among three partners: the NIH National Institute of Mental Health, the NIH Office of Science Education, and Biological Sciences Curriculum Study.

For more about NIH, visit its Web site at

About the National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Many scientists across the country are united by one chief desire: to improve our understanding of how life works. Whether they gaze at or grind up, create or calculate, model or manipulate, if their work sheds light on living systems, it may well receive financial support from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), which funds the research of more than 3,000 scientists at universities, medical schools, hospitals, and other research institutions.

NIGMS is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the U.S. government that is one of the world’s leading supporters of biomedical research. As the “General” in its name implies, NIGMS has broad interests. It funds basic research in cell biology, structural biology, genetics, chemistry, pharmacology, and many other fields. This work teaches us about the molecules, cells, and tissues that form all living creatures. It helps us understand—and possibly find new ways to treat—diseases caused by malfunctions in these biological building blocks. NIGMS also supports training programs that provide the most critical element of good research: well-prepared scientists.

Science is a never-ending story. The solution of one mystery is the seed of many others. Research in one area may also provide answers to questions in other, seemingly unrelated, areas. The anticancer drug cisplatin unexpectedly grew out of studies on the effect of electrical fields on bacteria. Freeze-drying was developed originally by researchers as a way to concentrate and preserve biological samples. And a laboratory technique called the polymerase chain reaction became the basis of “DNA fingerprinting” techniques that have revolutionized criminal forensics.

Similarly, it is impossible to predict the eventual impact and applications of the basic biomedical research that NIGMS supports. But one thing is certain: these studies will continue to supply missing pieces in our understanding of human health and will lay the foundation for advances in disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment.

For more information, visit the NIGMS Web site:

To order print copies of free NIGMS science education publications, visit

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