Psychology's research communities continue to be distressed about funding from the National Institutes of Health. We see a pattern of prejudice and discrimination directed toward basic social and behavioral science research, and we perceive that the situation is getting worse.
We have plenty of hypotheses to explain the poor treatment. One is that most of NIH's leaders and decision-makers are trained as medical doctors, not as social or behavioral scientists. As a result, they tend to favor biomedical research over social and behavioral research, without regard for its merits.
Another theory is that the NIH leadership has been seduced by neuroscience, genomics and the pharmaceutical lobby. The glitz and glamour of high technology and drug-based interventions have focused the attention (and dollars) on biomedical research, to the exclusion of social and behavioral research.
Psychology has developed its own rhetoric in response. We point out that social and behavioral science produces interventions that are just as effective, less expensive and more quickly delivered than most that derive from biomedical science. A good case can be made, but we seem to be the only ones who believe it.
Let's suspend our resentment and suspicions for a moment and consider things from NIH's perspective. The agency is very much like an investment broker: Its goal is to put money into research that is most likely to yield interventions that improve health and cure diseases.
The institute directors are portfolio managers. They hire staff who understand the market and who make decisions to maximize yield. Sometimes they make good decisions, sometimes they make bad ones. Over the long term, the expected yield is a healthier population. By this measure, NIH has been very successful.
A rational investment strategy is to put the money wherever the yield is likely to be greatest. A wise investment strategy is to mix the portfolio, with some investment in higher-risk areas but most investments in areas that are more certain to produce a positive yield.
The fund managers must therefore make decisions among a large array of investment opportunities. They can invest in neuroscience, genomics, technology and psychology. Right now, the portfolio is heavy in areas such as neuroscience and light in areas such as psychology.
If NIH follows a rational investment strategy, why would it place so little confidence in the social and behavioral science sectors? A good explanation can be found by considering the flow of investment dollars from research to delivery of interventions.
The key to this explanation is on the delivery side. Investment managers must have confidence that research and development dollars will ultimately improve service delivery.
Where is the strongest linkage between research and delivery of interventions? Which among the clinical service professions is seen as more reliably delivering the results of research? These are the questions on which an investment manager will focus.
Right now, the NIH managers seem to have more confidence in the clinical delivery professions of medicine than of psychology. In the marketplace of service provision, they see the work force of clinical medicine as better prepared to deliver interventions that flow from basic research. They put their investments in basic biomedical research because they see it as more likely to flow into practice.
If this is the perception at NIH, then what should be done about it? If the perception is false, then we need to be doing better education. If the perception has some truth, then we need to face a difficult reality: At least within the context of NIH funding, the connection between psychological science and practice must be strengthened. Neither will develop without the other.