If recent events such as the Sept. 11 attacks are any measure, understanding social behavior and what drives it may be one of the most important issues of the 21st century. Funding agencies are beginning to realize this, and are pumping money into a promising new approach to deciphering how we tick--examining social behavior, including attitude formation, stereotyping and emotions from the vantage point of the brain.
Over the last year, funding agencies have earmarked millions of dollars in new funding to jump-start interdisciplinary research into the neural underpinnings of social behavior. Here's a wrap-up of where some of that money is:
The National Science Foundation (NSF). About three years ago, NSF began taking an interest in social cognitive neuroscience, according to Steven Breckler, PhD, program director of NSF's social psychology program. The organization began awarding bigger grants this year, in combination with its new cognitive neuroscience program headed by Lawrence Parsons, PhD.
Overall, NSF wants to fund very basic work that pieces together mechanisms of typical human behaviors. At press time the new program didn't have an official budget, but the plan is to provide new money rather than take money from other areas, says Breckler. "We made the case to the foundation that cognitive neuroscience is really where the science is moving. And we're seeing a big increase in the budget for that," he says.
The National Institutes of Health is building its support for social cognitive neuroscience by first funding small, exploratory studies. In general, NIH is interested in funding research that will eventually lead to a better understanding of mental health, aging and child development, including disease states such as mental illness, autism and Alzheimer's disease.
Last September, the National Institute of Mental Health, along with the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, released a request for applications for pilot research in the area of social neuroscience. NIH has set aside $2.3 million, which will fund 11 to 13 two-year projects at up to $125,000 per project, per year.
"We've really been funding work in these areas for a long time, but as separate areas--social research, emotion research, research into brain mechanisms," says Carolyn Morf, PhD, chief of the Personality and Social Cognition Program at NIMH. "So rather than a departure from what we've already been doing, the idea is to signal that we're interested in funding research at the intersection of these areas and to help jump-start the new interdisciplinary field of social neuroscience."
The James S. McDonnell Foundation's new funding program "Bridging Brain, Mind, and Behavior" builds naturally on the foundation's historical interest in mind/brain research. Since the late 1980s the foundation has supported work at the interface of neuroscience and cognition and the applications of such research to real-world problems in education and rehabilitation. The foundation's objective is to "support interdisciplinary research spanning the different levels of analysis required in answering questions linking brain function and behavior."
The program is one of only three main topic areas the foundation is funding as part of its 21st Century Science Initiative, around which the foundation has organized its research budget, says the foundation's vice president, Susan Fitzpatrick, PhD.