A major new priority is being promoted at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)--translational research. The idea is to devote more resources to the challenge of translating basic research into tools and interventions that can be used to diagnose, treat and prevent disease. The goal is to bridge the gap between bench and bedside, and to facilitate the flow of scientific discovery to practical application. It is an important priority for NIH and entirely fitting with its mission.
New programs and funding announcements signal the NIH priority, and in some cases entire institutes have been reorganized in response. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) appears to be leading the way, with two entire divisions now devoted to translational research and treatment development.
Writing last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, MD, explained that "leaders in basic science are concerned at the increasing difficulty of finding talented, high-quality scientific collaborators who understand human disease and can both translate and clinically apply insights from basic science" (Vol. 294, No. 11, page 1,356). Zerhouni hopes to address this concern by transforming translational and clinical science into an entire discipline.
It is interesting to look more closely at the kinds of basic science that Zerhouni cites as facing a trans-lational hurdle: He mentioned genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and high-sensitivity biochemical methods in the 2005 JAMA article. The view from NIH is that multidisciplinary teams are needed to achieve the translation in such areas, and that higher value needs to be placed on translational science itself.
The translational challenge
In the case of NIMH, the new emphasis on translational research is the cause of some concern. Many psychologists--especially social psychologists--perceive that resources are being directed away from their kind of basic research so that translational research can grow. The psychologists are struggling to find a place for themselves in this new world of priorities, and they are resisting the suggestion that they need to somehow change their approach (if they want funding).
Until recently, I shared the concern of my colleagues. I worried that the new emphasis on translational research would mean diminished resources for basic psychological research. Yet, I also understood the challenge of translating advances in genomics or proteomics into something that could actually find use in treatment and intervention. I don't envy the scientists who work in those fields because the translational challenge is huge.
And then it dawned on me: Psychology has no problem with translation. Indeed, psychology is all about translation; it has been from the beginning. Translation is woven into the fabric of our discipline, and we excel at it. Other fields of science are challenged by translation because translation is not a part of their culture. It defines psychology.
A model of translation
Consider the model programs identified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for preventing or reducing substance abuse and for treating a variety of mental health disturbances. SAMHSA identifies a program as a model program only when substantial evidence has accumulated to show that it works.
The intervention that shows up over and over again among the SAMHSA model programs is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This is an intervention strategy with roots in basic psychological research. It owes its successful translation to psychologists--research psychologists, clinical psychologists and psychology practitioners who have worked together as a community over a long period of time to establish basic understanding and to develop effec-tive interventions.
Translation in psychology extends far beyond health-related areas. Research on human factors, education, organizational behavior, decision-making, environmental design and social influence has led to interventions and innovations that allow people to live healthier, safer and more productive lives. It is all about the translation of basic research into practical application. Psychology is a model discipline for translational research in health-related areas and beyond. Rather than being threatened by the new emphasis at NIH, psychology should be flattered. It is recognition that other fields of science need to follow the good example of psychology by placing higher priority on the translation of their basic science into practical and useable interventions and applications.
NIH may not even realize the good thing it has in psychology--one of the few scientific disciplines to have already met the new challenge of translation. If NIH wants to succeed in this endeavor, it should look to psychology to help lead the way.