By Huichun Xu, MD, PhD
As a doctor or biomedical researcher, you may already know the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest funding source for biomedical research in the world. NIH is a USA federal medical research agency, providing funding not only for thousands of scientists in universities and research institutions in the USA but also for research institutions around the world. The goal of NIH is to make important discoveries that improve health and save lives.
Dr. Huichun Xu (file photo).
NIH is made up of 27 Institutes and Centers (http://nih.gov/icd/). Each institute or center has its specific research goal focusing on particular diseases or specific body systems, such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI) centering around cancer research, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) focusing on research of cardiovascular and hematology diseases, the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) dedicating to grant review, and the NIH Clinical Center (CC) as the largest research hospital in the world established exclusively for clinical research.
The research conducted at or funded by NIH has had huge impact over human health: Americans now live over 30 years longer today than they did in 1900 and prevalence of chronic disabilities in elderly has decreased by nearly one-third. The medical advances fueled by the NIH funded research also benefit people worldwide. Notably, 138 Nobel Prize winners have received support from the NIH.
Intramural Research at the NIH – Unparalleled Opportunities
Although 80% of NIH’s budget goes to outside universities and research institutions across the states of the US, a significant portion of its budget goes to intramural research. There are about 6,000 scientists working in the NIH’s Intramural Research laboratories, mostly located in the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland. These Intramural Research laboratories are administered by 23 Institutes and Centers. So, most NIH institutes administer two independent programs at the same time: one is the extramural program providing funding to investigators at universities and research institutes outside of the NIH; the other is the intramural program conducting research on the NIH campus. Historically, all NIH programs were intramural before the NIH was turned into a federal funding agency to promote research in U.S. colleges and universities after World War II.
Today, the NIH Intramural Research Program (IRP) takes advantage of its stably funded environment to attract the most talented researchers in the world and distinguishes itself with an emphasis on high-risk, high-reward research. Believe or not, it is the largest institution for biomedical science in the world, including over 1,200 Principal Investigators and 4,000 post-doctoral fellows. As evidence, the Intramural Research laboratories have produced 18 Nobel Prize winners.
Unlike the investigators supported by NIH extramural funding, principal investigators in the NIH laboratories do not need to compete for research grants such as R01. Instead, they receive stable funding internally and directly from their Institute or Center. However, these NIH laboratories are also under regular rigorous review. Their researches are reviewed once every four years by an external Board of Scientific Counselors from related research fields, which then provides recommendations to the Scientific Director about the quality and value of the research being performed. This reviewing mechanism has ensured the high quality research conducted within NIH intramural program.
Because of the high quality research and stable funding mechanism uniquely available for intramural program of the NIH, the NIH has attracted numerous trainees with diverse backgrounds to its campus.
Training at the NIH – Many Advantages
There are many unique advantages to be trained with the NIH IRP: First, one of the missions of the NIH IRP is to “train the next generation of biomedical and behavioral researchers”. So the benefit of trainee is guaranteed to be on the top list of NIH IRP agenda. As a measure to ensure the quality of training, NIH IRP requires that the quality of mentoring needs to be included in quadrant site review of each PI’s Laboratory by external Boards of Scientific Counselors and site visit teams. Actually, members of Boards of Scientific Counselors will meet each trainee during the quadrant review. As training being the required duty for each PI, it is much less likely that the benefit of trainee would be ignored or abused. You can feel the respect to trainee in the NIH IRP once you are here.
Second, the NIH IRP has established Office of Intramural Training & Education (OITE) exclusively to “enhance the training experience of students and fellows on all of the NIH campuses”. The OITE regularly hosts career and professional development courses, workshops, seminars, and conferences. Topics include scientific writing, leadership development, English learning for foreign fellows and trainees, teaching skills, job search skills, alternative career choices, etc. The OITE also provides individual consultation for all trainees on career planning, transition, job search preparation, et al. All the services provided by OITE are free. More importantly, IRP has specific guidelines for PIs to ensure and encourage trainees to attend such career development events. I have found that the OITE can truly be the personal friend of trainees in the NIH IRP. It is clear that the OITE represents the benefit of trainees – I have been impressed by some personal examples of my friends in which the OITE stood up to protect the welfare of trainees. Besides the OITE as a NIH wide guardian for trainees’ welfare, each institute within NIH IPR has its own dedicated fellowship office for trainees in their intramural research program.
Third, trainees of different levels can find their own associations including the Graduate Student Council for graduate students, and the NIH Fellows Committee (FELCOM) for postdoctoral fellows. They represent the interests of over 500 graduate students, and 4,000 postdoctoral fellows in the NIH. Both of them have very close partnership with the Office of Intramural Training & Education. They are involved in creating resources, initiating and organizing professional development and enrichment events for trainees, and advocating for the welfare of trainees. For example, FELCOM offers free editing service for trainee regarding their manuscripts; FELCOM also offers travel scholarship for trainees to attend conferences. Trainees can volunteer for various positions in these organizations to develop their skills outside labs including communication, leadership, writing and editing, etc.
Fourth, as intramural investigators they have relatively stable funding, trainees in the NIH intramural program can focus their time and energy mostly on research itself without worrying about funding. This also ensures a more smooth and continuous training experience that can be well planned out in advance. The trainee can also have the opportunity to play more active roles in initiating novel projects of their interest, or conduct high risk, high reward type of projects.
Last but not the least, as the largest research funding agent for US colleges, universities and institutes, the NIH has close relationships with distinguished scientists in the US and in the world. Scientists outside from university or institutes often visit the NIH to perform grant review duties in the Study Sections, to report research progresses, to respond to funding request reviewing, or to seek collaborations with intramural investigators. Almost every day, there is at least one public presentation by leading scientists in various biomedical fields. So the NIH IRP trainees have the luxury to meet distinguished scientists without leaving campus. This is very beneficial for trainees to establish contacts and to foster collaborations nationwide, which would facilitate the transition of trainees to independent investigators too. Besides the nationwide expertise resources, trainees in the NIH IRP have the extraordinary advantages to access to large number of expertise within the NIH intramural program and the vast amount of core facilities hosted in the 27 institutes and centers, including the state-of-the-art sequencing facilities, imaging facilities, and the largest hospital exclusively for clinical research-the latter would particularly be attractive for those with interest in clinical and translational research.
However, the NIH intramural program has its disadvantages when it compared to other universities or institutes. For example, trainees have fewer chances to be involved in grant writing; there is 5 year training limitation for postdoctoral fellows; there is more strict regulations and less flexibilities regarding to paperwork procedures for travelling, or participating in outside activities, etc. Nonetheless, many of these can either be overcome by writing a K99 grant or even be viewed as an advantage within the 5 year limitation.
Hope by now I have convinced you to consider the NIH intramural program as one of your choices when you plan for your next step of training. Not only your professional skills, but also your horizon will be greatly boosted at this federal level premium research institute. Particularly for those considering alternative scientific career path, the NIH intramural program encourages and offers the opportunity for trainees to be exposed to non-traditional scientific professions in scientific management, policy, scientific writing, teaching, technology transfer, global health, etc. In the future, we can discuss various mechanisms that trainees from the different levels can seek to come to the NIH intramural program.