Feature

In October, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) finished a reorganization that dismantled the institute's Basic Behavioral and Social Science Branch. In doing so, the institute dispersed much of the behavioral science research portfolio into newly formed "translational" divisions, which focus on translating the findings of basic science into treatments for the mentally ill.

That reorganization reflects the institute's shifted focus away from bench science, says Steven Breckler, PhD, APA's executive director for science.

At the same time, NIMH--traditionally psychology's largest financer--will increase its budget by only about 1 percent during fiscal year 2006, an amount that does not keep pace with biomedical research's inflation rate of 3.5 percent. According to NIMH director Thomas R. Insel, MD, slowed budget growth coupled with an increasing price of doing research means fewer grants for everyone--including behavioral scientists.

But future funding may be brighter than it currently seems, Breckler says. Basic researchers who can link their work to mental illness may gain even larger grants than they previously did, he notes. And even those with research that no longer fits into NIMH's goals may be able to find funding from other federal--and private--sources, says Breckler.

Appealing to these sources may in some cases require researchers to shift how they conduct studies. The National Science Foundation, NIMH and other institutions are moving in the direction of "big" science: interdisciplinary, collaborative projects with ambitious goals, rather than individual investigators solving problems incrementally, according to Karen Studwell, JD, the senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Science Policy Office.

In the view of Breckler, it's time to "embrace these changes and see if you can get even more money--from NIMH and other sources--to do the work you are doing."

By moving toward both "big" science and translational research, psychological scientists may avoid being left out in the cold--without compromising their contributions to general knowledge, says Breckler. Such a shift could also keep psychologists plugged into the revised mission of NIMH, he notes.

From normal to abnormal

Whereas NIMH traditionally had claimed a broad goal of contributing to mental health and expanding knowledge about the brain and behavior, the institute under Insel--appointed in 2002--revised its mission to focus on lessening the effects of mental illness.

Under the revised mission, the institute requires that scientists tie their research to practical applications. However, it remains to be seen how closely researchers must relate their work to potential applications.

"In the past, researchers have gotten away with paying lip service to that requirement with a paragraph at the end of an application, saying: 'This research may be relevant to mental illness in the following six ways,'" says Breckler.

The institute now asks scientists to design their research so that it makes the connection from the normal to the abnormal, says Peter Muehrer, PhD, chief of the NIMH Health and Behavior Research Branch.

"We would like to see [researchers] articulate in detail how they think their research could inform us as to the processes involved in mental disorders," he says.

Linking basic research to the processes of mental illness might simply mean investigating aspects of mental illness, such as anxiety or depression in conjunction with the primary focus of the research, Breckler says. For example, a stigma researcher interested in the cognitive effects of belonging to a stigmatized group could also investigate how such effects might play into the development of mental illness, he notes. By expanding the scope of a study in such a way, a researcher could simultaneously add to psychology's general knowledge base and contribute to the NIMH mission.

But understanding the processes of mental illness is only the first step in the NIMH plan to alleviate the burden of mental illnesses. The second step--translating theories into treatments--may attract far more funding under institute's new priorities, Studwell says.

Turning theory into treatment

In fact, three of NIMH's five newly formed divisions focus specifically on translational research that turns psychological theory into practice. And many of the grants that previously fell under the purview of the institute's former Basic Behavioral and Social Science Branch now belong to the Division of Adult Translational Research and Treatment Development, the Division of Pediatric Translational Research and Treatment Development or the Division of AIDS and Health and Behavior Research.

Translational research may not seem like an obvious fit for bench scientists, who generally do not create interventions for people with mental disorders, says Breckler. And in some cases, such researchers may want to look toward other sources of funding, such as the Department of Defense or the National Science Foundation. However, basic researchers can tap into NIMH funding for treatment development by working with those who do create interventions, he says.

One researcher who is already building such collaborations is Northwestern University psychology professor Patrick Corrigan, PsyD, who heads a team of NIMH-funded investigators, including bench scientists and clinical psychologists. Together, they investigate the stigma of mental illness and then develop strategies for diminishing its effects.

For example, the group is currently testing an intervention aimed at making police officers more comfortable with people who have mental illnesses, including homeless populations, and evaluating whether that decreases their stigmatizing behavior. The project stands on the foundation of work by basic-research members of the group--work that details the cognitive processes underlying stigma formation, says Corrigan.

"There is just this exciting mesh when basic researchers and service psychologists get together," Corrigan says. "It is fun trying to sit down with my basic research guys and come up with a common paradigm for what we are doing."

Such teams may end up capturing the bulk of NIMH's behavioral science funding, says Breckler. In fact, interdisciplinary projects with ambitious goals seem to be where science in general is headed, he notes. Other federal funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, also tend to fund such teams.

However, there will always be a place for the single-investigator projects, says Breckler. The challenge will be to make the case with funding agencies that such projects continue to merit funding, he says.

Regardless of the size of a project, research that does not connect to treating mental illness or neurobiology may no longer have a home at NIMH, says Kevin Quinn, PhD, chief of the institute's Behavioral Science and Integrative Neuroscience Research Branch.

"This is the case across the spectrum, not just for basic behavioral science," he says. "It applies to genetics work, molecular science--anyone who is coming to NIMH."

If a study doesn't contribute to alleviating mental illness, it may fit in with the mission of other institutes at the National Institutes of Health. The National Cancer Institute, for example, supports psychological research that sheds light on behaviors that can lead to cancer--such as eating fatty foods, which has been linked to breast cancer. Research on the cognitive and social basis for addiction can find a place in the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And those who investigate psychological processes in older adults may win grants from the National Institute on Aging.

Taking advantage of diverse and shifting funding sources means staying flexible and informed, says Breckler. But psychologists needn't be too worried: As long as the nation's public health depends on an understanding of the mind and behavior, psychological science will continue to receive federal support, he says.

The research dollar overhaul

This article launches a series focusing on the changing funding climate for behavioral science research. Future articles will detail how psychologists are tapping into funding through large collaborative projects, translational research and seeking grants from nontraditional sources.