APA Science Directorate Update


Howard Kurtzman, Deputy Executive Director, APA Science Directorate





Greetings from Washington.  The Science Directorate has focused much of its advocacy work over the last several months on issues related to the National Institutes of Health and other federal health agencies.  Here’s a brief run-down:


Science Leadership Conference.  With the APA Board of Scientific Affairs, the Directorate hosted the annual APA Science Leadership Conference in Washington on November 14-16, 2009.  The conference theme was “Enhancing the Nation’s Health Through Psychological Science.” 


Over 100 participants heard updates from federal officials on the research activities and plans of various NIH institutes as well as of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Department of Veterans Affairs.  The participants also received training in advocacy and spent a day visiting the offices of their home state Senators and Representatives to make the case for: (1) increased funding for NIH; (2) protection of the peer review process from political interference; and (3) inclusion of psychological factors and interventions in federal initiatives to support comparative effectiveness research.  


The participants invited to the conference were well-positioned for this effort: they were psychological scientists who both conduct health-related research and live in the districts of key members of Congressional committees that oversee funding of NIH and other health agencies. 


More information about the conference can be found in the January issue of Psychological Science Agenda, which contains both a conference summary and a set of first-person accounts by participants.  The conference was also covered in the Monitor on Psychology.


NIH Grants Questioned.  In September, 2009, two members of Congress raised concerns about the scientific significance and quality of a number of currently funded NIH grants, including projects addressing substance abuse and sexuality. In a letter to NIH Director Francis Collins, these members asked for justifications for the funding of the projects and for information about the peer review process that led to their being funded. 


While awaiting a response from NIH, the Coalition to Protect Research submitted letters in support of the NIH peer review process and of federal support for research on addiction and other sensitive health topics to members of Congress, the Secretary of Health & Human Services (HHS), and the White House.  The Coalition, a group of over eighty scientific and public health organizations in which the APA Science Directorate plays a leadership role,  argued “that it is incumbent on the NIH to continue to support all phases of research, from basic molecular biology, genetics and behavior, to community-based and culturally appropriate prevention and intervention strategies.”  APA and the Coalition will continue to monitor this exchange between NIH and members of Congress and intervene where needed. 


Political challenges to federal support for research in such areas as sexuality, human relationships, substance abuse, and animal behavior have arisen periodically in recent years.  The Directorate’s government relations staff aims to prevent and counter such challenges by devoting a major portion of its efforts to educating policymakers in Congress and federal agencies about the important contributions and scientific rigor of basic and applied behavioral research. 


NIH Basic Behavioral & Social Science Initiative. The NIH OppNet initiative for funding basic behavioral and social science research has received much publicity since its formal launching in November, 2009.  The APA and its partners in such coalitions as the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences and the Consortium for Social Science Associations met throughout 2009 with leaders of the NIH to help shape the scope and direction of this NIH-wide program. 


In its first year, the program will fund short-term career development awards and supplements to existing grants.  Funding announcements for a broader range of grant mechanisms will be released in the coming months for projects to be funded in fiscal year 2011. 


It is clear that NIH has made a serious commitment to OppNet, seeks to manage it effectively, and is interested in input from the scientific community.  In advising NIH, APA has argued that OppNet will be most successful if it takes a broad approach, encompassing a variety of topics, methods, and species.  APA has also emphasized that, while it is necessary to encourage interdisciplinary research, research that works at a single level of analysis or utilizes a single method can also produce valuable results and should remain eligible for support.


Potential NIAAA-NIDA merger.  The NIH Scientific Management Review Board, an advisory group to the NIH and HHS leadership, is currently examining the missions and organizations of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse and considering how these institutes might work in a more coordinated fashion -- including the possibility of their being merged into a single institute. 


Many complex issues have arisen in the testimony and discussions at the meetings of the Board’s working group on this topic.   These issues relate to the compatibility of the scientific portfolios, public health goals, and constituencies of the institutes, and to the potential consequences of organizational and budgetary changes for particular areas of research.  Although APA has not taken a position on a merger, it has asked the Board to consider the impact of any changes on support for research on tobacco addiction (which is funded by both NIDA and the National Cancer Institute), on comorbidity of substance use and mental disorders, and on other compulsive and habitual behaviors.


Please contact me (hkurtzman@apa.org) if you would like further information on these or any other Science Directorate activities.  You may also stay informed by subscribing to the directorate’s newsletter Psychological Science Agenda.


See you this summer at the APA Convention in San Diego.