Once again, the mission of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is being debated by scientists and policy-makers, though some say this time the institute may be undergoing a sea change in priorities.

Both politics and funding play into how broadly the institute defines its mission, says Stanford University psychology professor Gordon Bower, PhD, who served as senior science adviser to former NIMH director Frederick K. Goodwin, MD.

"NIMH is often pitched to Congress as the solution to mental illness," says Bower. "Straight behavioral research really has to struggle to make itself relevant."

In his position at the institute, Bower authored a report to Congress on the scientific import of NIMH-funded research in areas such as attention, memory and language function. While the report made connections between these areas of research and progress in understanding and treating mental illness, proving such a link was not critical to funding.

"Then, making contributions to the science of behavioral research was part of the mission of NIMH," notes Bower.

In response to Insel's plans to re-focus the institute's research portfolio, the National Mental Health Advisory Council has created a workgroup of scientists who will review the basic science portfolio of the institute and prioritize basic behavioral research funding. The workgroup will assess which fields of basic research are likely to have a direct impact on public mental health, both by better understanding the causes of mental illness and by testing clinical interventions.

"Basic research can be fundamentally relevant to our understanding of the nature and treatment of major psychiatric disorders," says behavioral and integrative neuroscience subgroup chair Richard Davidson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "To the extent that research is not even remotely relevant to those issues, we need to ask ourselves whether the NIMH should be in the business of sponsoring that."

Noting that scientific discovery often leads to unforeseen applications, Davidson adds that predicting what research will be relevant can be difficult. "We need all the wisdom we can muster to make these choices" about which areas of research to fund, says Davidson.

Many of the grant applications that Bower reviewed during his tenure at NIMH in the early 1990s, would not pass muster under strict criteria for application to mental illness, says Bower. "This was back in the days when everyone believed basic science was good, and eventually useful applications would flow from it," he says.

APA Past-president Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, also expresses concern over the potential shift in focus at NIMH. "I believe that the National Institute of Mental Health is named as it is for a reason, namely, that its emphasis is to be on mental health. Focusing only on mental illness subverts both the purpose of the Institute and its own name," he says. "Mental illness should be an important focus of investigation, but only in the context of overall mental health issues."

No amount of debate changes the economic reality, says Davidson. "The fact is we are all facing a time of leaner budgets," he says. "If there was an unlimited pool of funds, NIMH could have a broader vision."

--S. DINGFELDER