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I have been asked to discuss how recent changes at NIH affect experimental psychology. I presume I was asked because I am currently President of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, and the Federation has been working on this situation for well over a year now. In particular, our Executive Director, Barb Wanchisen, knows as much as anyone about what is going on, and I have leaned heavily on her advice in preparing this brief statement.
As anticipated, and as verified in the President’s FY 2006 budget released on February 7th, all of the basic sciences are facing very difficult times because of federal budget cuts. Will the behavioral sciences find it even worse than the
so-called “life” and “physical” sciences? If history repeats itself, yes they will. But it is also unlikely, in the near future, that any “academic” area of science will likely flourish in terms of federal funding. That is, R&D in areas of defense and terrorism will do quite well in 2006, and probably beyond, but this is mostly intramural research or research associated with federal laboratories, and not the science funded in academic laboratories. So what about experimental psychology in academic institutions?
Most of our scientists are funded (federally) through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Instigated by a congressional request, the NIH assembled a special Working Group last year to address the role of the basic behavioral (and social) sciences. A team of scientists from across the United States met three times during the course of 2004 and compiled the following report: (http://obssr.od.nih.gov/Activities/Basic%20Beh%20Report_complete.pdf)
As the report indicates, there is concern that the basic behavioral sciences are not funded at a level commensurate with their value at the NIH, and that, specifically, there should be a place for our sciences at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). The report was presented at the December 2004 meeting of the Council that advises the Office of the Director, and by all accounts, the report was not met with enthusiasm by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni. There is ongoing work to address his reaction to the report by the Federation, APA and other advocacy groups.
Since that presentation, the NIH’s Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research (OBSSR) hired a new Director, David Abrams. This office had gone without a director for almost two years; it is hoped that Abrams can help increase the visibility of the basic behavioral sciences to the 27 institutes and centers of the NIH. As you know, some institutes are more amenable to our work than others, for example, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has been one of, if not the, largest supporter of basic behavioral science. As you undoubtedly have heard, a reorganization of that institute has been ongoing, the changes officially put into existence on October 1, 2004, and this has been a source of serious concern to behavioral scientists. Basic behavioral science is clearly not a major focus for the new director, Thomas Insel. He has suggested that NIH needs to spend its money where it will give real traction addressing the core mission of NIMH (i.e., the alleviation of mental disease). Consequently, greater “health-relevance” must be demonstrated in applications; there needs to be more than just the traditional paragraph explaining the connection of the proposed work to mental health.
The pain is not distributed equally among the various fields of psychology. Social psychology has been hit especially hard and the social psychology community has become quite vocal about its experiences in recent months. While things are still rather fluid, it appears that most of the “truly basic” social psychology has been relegated to the Adult Translational Division and, as such, will do well to the extent that it can show very direct translation to medical applications. For these researchers, and for all scientists in basic behavioral areas, I can’t emphasize enough two things: 1) actively engage the relevant program officer at the NIMH before submitting a proposal and 2) do not cease applying for grants at the NIMH. In the latter case, even if you fear your ideas would no longer be welcome, if you walk away without trying, and if others follow suit, then surely your area will disappear from their portfolio. Consider simultaneous submission of your grant – to NSF and NIH for example - to maximize your chances of success but also as a service to your science. One thing about federal agencies: if people keep showing up, they have to acknowledge this in their reports and the “pressure” stays on.
Now that the President’s budget is showing less than 1% increase for the NIH, doubtless all grants will be under a microscope. However, Director Zerhouni continues to push to fund high-risk basic science (and received a 42% increase for that “Roadmap” initiative bringing it to $33 million). That means there is room for optimism and that we must keep at this, keep bringing our best ideas to both NIH and NSF.
I can tell you that there are active efforts to change the current situation. For example, the Federation is in the processing of organizing a group of distinguished scientists to visit high-level Washington officials responsible for setting the priorities of our national research effort. Their purpose will be to discuss the broad health relevance of psychosocial and behavioral science. So, do not give up! And remember, re-organization happens frequently at the NIH and we must try to hold our ground for some better times in the future.