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Kristi S. Multhaup
Mark E. Faust
UNC at Charlotte
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Brigham and Women's Hospital
Harvard Medical School
University of Missouri
Members-At-Large of the
Bob Cook (09-12)
Nancy Dess (09-12)
David Washburn (08-11)
Jeremy Wolfe (08-11)
Mark Bouton (07-10)
University of Vermont
Nora Newcombe (07-10)
Graduate Student Representative
Representative to APA Council
Randy Engle (10-12)
Emanuel Donchin (08-10)
University of South Florida
Janet Duchek (Awards)
Wash. U., St. Louis
Lisa Savage (Fellows)
John Wixted (Program)
Charles L. Brewer
Early Career Psychologist
California State U. at Fullerton
APA Division 3
Funding of Psychological
Research in America Today
Ralph R. Miller (SUNY-Binghamton)
The funding situation in the United States for experimental psychology (cognition and behavior) has undergone major changes in the last ten years. NSF was founded to support the advancement of science through research and education. Progress in our understanding of the natural world was assumed to be worthwhile in and of itself. Basic research was as relevant as research explicitly designed to improve the quality of human life. NSF still espouses this philosophy, but its budget has grown far far slower than the number of academics at research universities. Part of this slow growth has been due to successful lobbying by special interest disease-focused organizations that new research dollars should go to NIH rather than NSF because of the benefits for human health that NIH brings. Starting 10-15 years ago, NSF, in attempting to live with its relatively limited budget, began looking dimly upon proposals that might be funded by NIH. With the average NIH grant being for more years and more dollars per year than NSF was awarding, PIs did not complain about being steered away from NSF and towards NIH. This ‘steering’ was largely done through acceptance rates for submitted proposals being lower at NSF than NIH. Reinforcement principles (i.e., Herrnstein’s matching law) can clearly been seen in force here. PIs submitted less and less to NSF and more and more to NIH. With fewer psychologically oriented proposals being submitted to NSF, NSF decreased the percentage of program directors and study panel members who were familiar with or worked at the cognitive and behavioral levels. This resulted in an even lower percentage of submitted applications in our area being funded, which in turn further lowered the rate of submissions.
From its inception, NIH had as its central mission the improvement in health of Americans. However, until recently it viewed basic science with only a long-term probabilistic payoff relevant to human health as a worthwhile investment. However, in the last five years NIH has narrowed its interests to exclude studies of basic cognition and behavior unless they directly and immediately speak to problems of human health. Moreover, NIH is now strongly favoring neurological, pharmacological, and genetic approaches to understanding cognitive and behavioral dysfunction, to the detriment of analysis at the psychological level. Additionally, studies of psychological processes in clinical (or subclinical) populations are clearly being favored over studies of functioning in ‘normal’ subjects. This narrowing in focus by NIH has occurred a decade after NSF turned its back on our science. The net result is that there is now no major federal agency willing to fund the study of cognition and behavior at the psychological level in normal subjects unless there is a clear application in the near future. Analogous to Wall Street’s obsession with regular quarterly profits, government support for our science now requires immediate benefits. Seeking [psychological] knowledge for the sake of knowledge with the thought that basic research ultimately often has benefits is no longer supported by the federal funding agencies. Many of us, particularly older researchers, grew up in the era when basic science was considered important and worthy of support in its own right. That era is clearly over.
What is the root cause of the present problem? In my view, it is threefold. First, Sputnik (and other factors) prompted America to radically increase its training in science in the middle of the 20th century, which resulted in professors at research universities doubling and tripling their output of new PhDs. This provided staff for the new and enlarging universities. Moreover, an appreciable number of these universities were research institutes rather than pure teaching colleges. This meant that many more people were applying to the federal government for support of their research. The size of the federal research pie did not increase as fast as the number of researchers seeking support. Second, the cost of doing science went up over the last 50 years far faster than the overall economy grew. Consequently, fewer and fewer psychological scientists can underwrite their research with university and personal funds. Third, government funding of research in America has reflected American capitalism. Those who do manage to get funded tend to get very large grants (with summer salaries and course buyouts for PIs) and researchers with grants are often able to parlay their support into getting multiple grants; researchers with multiple grants manage to assemble more impressive progress reports by including publications on grant A that were primarily funded by grant B. In other developed countries, grants tend to be smaller and exclude salary for the faculty member (e.g., summer and buyouts during the academic year). Additionally, in these other countries, rules of the funding agencies mitigate against researchers being awarded multiple grants. These two factors, smaller grants and tighter limits on how many one PI can have, allow a greater percentage of researchers to get funding. One might argue that America does well by giving a great deal of support to a relatively small percentage of its researchers. Others might argue that the present distribution pattern is nearsighted in that any given researcher has at most a limited number of good ideas and failing to fund some qualified researchers nips many good ideas in the bud. For all three of these reasons, federal funding agencies currently do not have the funds to support all scientifically interesting proposals, and, for the reasons stated earlier, research concerning normal psychological processes has faired poorly in the resultant intense competition for federal research funds.
In an effort to reverse this trend, some of us have lobbied and others of us are still lobbying NSF and NIH, trying to make the case for supporting basic psychological research with normal subjects when there are not obvious immediate benefits for society. The case for supporting such research can no longer be made by arguing that the expansion of all knowledge is worthwhile. At least there is no longer an audience for such arguments. We must point out the long-term benefits that our science has brought to applied neuroscience, education, and psychotherapy. Division 3 has played a role in this lobbying, largely in concert with APA with its considerable lobbying skills and resources. Conjointly, we have tried to make our case to Congress and federal funding agencies. But such efforts to date have been at best only modestly effective.
Where does this leave the psychological scientist without funding today? On average the researcher is less able to do her/his science in the fashion desired. What should we be doing in response beyond continuing our lobbying efforts? First, there is always the option of making one’s research more immediately relevant to some social, educational, or health-related problem. Some of us bridle at moving away from our current focal interests especially with the re-education that is usually required. But many others of us have successfully made this transition and have improved their funding opportunities as a result. Second, perhaps those of us who want to continue to conduct basic psychological research should be training fewer graduate students, at least students with academic rather than industrial aspirations. With restricted funding opportunities, we realistically should not expect the number of active researchers in basic research to grow as fast as applied areas of research. Indeed, cutting back on the number of graduate students may be imposed upon basic researchers (rather than be a choice), as the scarcity of funding for students, particular summer funding, will discourage potential applicants to our field. Third, researchers lacking funding should be inventively developing new inexpensive means to address the problems that interest them. The times are changing.