How the NIH Decides What to Fund

Question: How does the NIH decide which medical research to fund?

Francis Collins: The process that NIH goes through to decide which research to fund is complex; there’s a lot of factors.  Certainly the burden of the disease has to be one of those, but if that was all you paid attention to, rare diseases would get neglected so that can’t be the only story.  

Scientific opportunity has to be a big part of it.  There’s no point throwing money at a problem if nobody had any ideas about how to move the ball forward.  And you can see then sometimes when a rare disease which may not affect that many people hits that moment of scientific opportunity, and oftentimes rare diseases teach you a thing about common diseases as well.  So, it’s a complicated mix.  

NIH depends very heavily on the scientific community to come forward with their best and brightest ideas, and they send us their grant proposals in an unsolicited way and that’s where the majority of our money goes.  But we also identify areas which are ripe for exploration, where something is really starting to go great guns and we don’t want to slow that down, in fact, we want to speed it up.  So in that situation, NIH would issue what’s called a "Request for Applications" saying, we think there’s opportunity here scientifically so we’re gonna set aside some money and we want people who have skills and interest in that area to come forward with some ideas and we’ll pay for the best in the group.  

Question:
Since becoming director, have you put a specific emphasis on addressing specific diseases?

Francis Collins: I think it’s hard to pick out individual diseases and say, "Well those are more important that the others." But I think one can look at circumstances where there are especially ripe opportunity.  Cancer certainly would be on that list because we are beginning to understand cancer on a detailed molecular level, in ways that we never dreamed possible.  So there’s a real potential there for moving forward in a new quantum leap into understanding.  

Autism is certainly something many people are now focused on as an area of very high priority disease that affects now one in 100 kids.  This seems to be more common all the time and we don’t understand it very well—a very high sort of public health significance.  But many other things would also sort of fit on my list, diabetes, heart disease. Alzheimer’s disease—good heavens, when you look at the burden that is going to place on individual’s families and our economy.  

It’s all a mix though, and frankly what I’ve tried to do since I became Director of NIH in August of 2009, is to identify specific areas that actually touch on multiple diseases that are ripe for investment, so I came up with a series of five themes that, if pursued vigorously, could really change the landscape, but they would really do that for lots of diseases not just a few that are specifically targeted.

Recorded September 13, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

"Scientific opportunity has to be a big part of it," says Francis Collins. Sometimes when a rare disease hits that moment of scientific opportunity it can reveal things about common illnesses as well.

China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession

The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.

Videos
  • How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
  • One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
  • Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.

Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
Keep reading Show less

There never was a male fertility crisis

A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.

Sex & Relationships
  • A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
  • The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
  • The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast