Science Watch

The National Institutes of Health is making some changes.

Over the last few years, NIH leaders have revamped its application and grants processes, as well as its research goals to better fit today’s era of cross-disciplinary collaboration and transparency. NIH’s giant step forward includes an overhaul of its review processes, a large, children-focused longitudinal study that’s been a decade in the making, and, of course, a new director, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, who was appointed by President Barack Obama last year.

Here are five of the most groundbreaking changes at the venerable institution — and what they mean for psychologists.

1. A new home for basic research

NIH has launched its Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network, or OppNet. Over an initial five-year period, the project will fund basic behavioral and social science research and coordinate efforts in that vein among the various basic behavioral and social science research programs scattered throughout NIH’s institutes.

For example, at press time, OppNet was providing $150,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to supplement a grant for HIV/AIDS research so that it will include basic research on behavioral and social factors, such as emotion, motivation and memory.

OppNet’s coordinator, human communication researcher William Elwood, PhD, says that too often, applied research has been funded at the expense of basic research, often because it’s easier to point to specific expected successes of applied work. But, he says, basic research is fundamental to developing new approaches to understanding and treating diseases and promoting healthy behaviors.

Not only is OppNet good for science in general, it’s good for psychologists. OppNet provides a great opportunity for psychologists to get involved in these projects, says Steve Breckler, PhD, APA’s executive director for science. The prospect of more grant money for including behavioral research is a powerful incentive for principal investigators to invite psychologists on board, he says.

2. Streamlined applications

In January, NIH finished overhauling its grant application system, which promises shorter application forms, allows for multiple principal investigators and gives early career researchers a shot at funding comparable with that of established researchers. The change was necessary, say NIH insiders, because the previous system bogged down applications with administrative trivia that distracted from the science.

To foster collaboration, NIH followed through on a plan laid out in the 2004 NIH Roadmap to allow multiple principal investigators on one grant. By allowing multiple principal investigators, NIH is hoping to foster more transdisciplinary cooperation and to reduce the friction that can occur over such issues as seniority or how to disperse funding, says Rebecca Claycamp, an NIH chief grant management officer.

NIH also incorporated a special application-review process for researchers who are within 10 years of completing their terminal degrees. When these scientists submit traditional R01 research grant applications, their status as “early stage investigators” will be flagged for reviewers, so they won’t be overshadowed by more established researchers.

3. Transparency now

The National Institutes of Health Reform Act of 2006 was designed to increase transparency and efficiency within NIH and to expand the director’s ability to fund research collaborations among institutes and organizations. Central to increased transparency was a call for a better system for cataloging research funding. Previously, each NIH institute catalogued its own funding, a process that made it difficult to compare funding efforts among institutes. In response, NIH created its Research, Condition, and Disease Categorization, which lists all of the research funding across the entire organization. By using the system, anyone who wants to find out about the research NIH is funding in neuroscience, for example, can select that as a category and view all the relevant information. People can also search the database by disease and specific health condition.

4. A new director

Collins has laid out five areas for NIH to focus on during his tenure: Global health, technology, translation, outcomes research and funding.

Collins comes into NIH as former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, where under his watch, the institute released the first working draft of the human genome. While at NHGRI, Collins frequently emphasized the importance of making the connection between behavior and genetics and translating knowledge gained from the Human Genome Project into new treatments and interventions.

And in addition to his own agenda, Collins wants to know about other organizations’ concerns.

He invited scientific and health-oriented organizations, including APA, to share their priorities with him. In October 2009, APA’s Science Directorate responded, urging Collins and NIH to remain strong in their commitment to fund behavioral and social science research, regardless of political pressure to back off from such areas, such as last year’s attack by Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.) on federally funded research on sex workers, and encouraging NIH to support trans-institute research on gene-environment interactions. In the past, says APA, NIH’s work in this area has somewhat narrowly focused on environmental contaminants’ and pollutants’ effects on genes. APA argues there’s a need to look into the effects of social environment, too.

5. The birth of new research

After 10 years of planning, the largest longitudinal research program focusing specifically on children debuted in 2009. The National Children’s Study, a multi-agency and multi-disciplinary collaboration headed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, will follow 100,000 Americans from the prenatal stage to their 21st birthdays. Through periodic check-ins and home visits, scientists from many disciplines will collect data on which genetic and environmental influences — including culture, religion, and parents, as well as physical materials and toxins — contribute to disease later in life.

“The only way to truly understand how all those factors interact is to take a huge sample that is, to some degree, representative of the entire population and follow them over a number of years,” says NICHD Acting Director Alan Guttmacher, MD.

After following these people from conception to adulthood, scientists will have a large data pool they can use to identify trends in the statistics to come up with and test new hypotheses. Researchers began enrolling pregnant women into the study last year. Guttmacher expects the first data to be available in a few years. Because it’s a federally funded program, all qualified scientists will have access to the data.

“We’re designing it to be a data resource,” Guttmacher says, “for scientists studying everything from autism to asthma to cancer.”