As part of the ongoing effort to mute criticism of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) effort to increase support for translational research, the NIH Director took to last week’s issue of Science for a quick summary of the agency’s efforts in basic research. Dr. Collins describes at length how much NIH activity, and cutting edge research, is focused on so-called ‘basic research’. It’s an interesting step, because it can be tough to see NIH as particularly focused on basic research. After all, with institutes focused on specific diseases and/or parts of the body, it’s an easy assumption for me to make that the agency’s research is always targeted.
For instance, there’s this NIH program on undiagnosed diseases. It was recently announced that the NIH will expand this program, creating six or seven centers around the United States to augment what happens at NIH headquarters. Think of this program as an institutionalized version of the House program on television (without the attitude and misdemeanors).
Maybe it’s just my perspective. If research is conducted on specific diseases, is it really ‘basic research’? It strikes me as at least a little applied, so I guess the basic/applied research rhetorical line is placed differently in biomedical research compared to other agencies.
Perhaps this suggests that all the ‘mission’ agencies were categorized as applied research, Collins wouldn’t have had to defend his agency in Science. But that assumes that these labels have as much meaning as history seems to assign to them. I’m not so sure.