For the third year in a row, Congress has approved legislation that would revoke funding for peer-reviewed, federally funded behavioral health research. This time the legislation targets work by two psychologists: experimental psychologist Edward Wasserman, PhD, and experimental social psychologist Sandra Murray, PhD.
Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) introduced the legislation as an amendment to the fiscal year 2006 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill. The bill, with the amendment, passed the House in June. APA officials say they hope Congress will remove the amendment this fall during House-Senate conference negotiations.
In a press release issued in June, Neugebauer's office wrote that the money that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allocated to those projects would be better spent on research on specific mental illnesses. "NIH has continually failed to give a high priority to research on serious mental illnesses," the release stated.
This attack on basic behavioral research is merely the latest manifestation of an alarming trend, according to Karen Studwell, a senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Science Policy Office. It is the third time in three years that a member of Congress has tried to cherry-pick individual research grants--all of which passed the NIH peer-review process--and revoke their funding.
"I don't much appreciate the role of sacrificial lamb, and I would hope that this legislative maneuver is not repeated in the future," Wasserman says. "But a pattern seems to have been established that this is going to happen every year."
Last year, Neugebauer attached a similar amendment to the fiscal year 2005 appropriations bill. It also passed the House--in a nonrecorded voice vote--but was later removed in House-Senate conference negotiations, which APA hopes will happen again this year. Moreover, in July 2003, then-Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) offered an amendment to cancel funding for five peer-reviewed NIH grants. That amendment was defeated by only two votes in the House.
Such congressional meddling in the peer-review process is disconcerting, says Studwell. "Congress does have oversight responsibility for NIH," she says, "but undermining the peer-review process is not the appropriate method to question the agency's priorities. It's certainly not the best way to decide which grants have scientific merit."
The two grants targeted this year both are National Institute of Mental Health-funded research by psychologists. Sandra Murray, PhD, a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York, is studying the cognitive and behavior processes that predict relationship resilience. In the study, she's tracking newlywed couples for the first three years of their marriages to see how participants perceive and react to rejection and disagreement. She's interested in finding out which factors lead to successful marriages and which ones to divorce.
"On a broader level, this research is important because marital dissolution and breakdown are huge risk factors for depression," she says.
The other targeted research grant, led by Wasserman, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, is a continuation of a 15-year project that is investigating cognition and perception using pigeons as model organisms. He and his colleagues have found that pigeons can visually categorize the world in much the same way humans do--for example, sorting pictures of cats, chairs and flowers into appropriate categories. Now, they're studying how variables like color, shape and orientation affect vision.
"We want to know if there are general rules that govern visual perception and recognition, and if there are, we want to try to understand the nature of the nervous system that brings this about," Wasserman says.
Wasserman and Murray both say that being at the center of this controversy has exacted a personal and professional toll. Murray said that she felt "shock, horror and dismay" when she first heard from her campus federal affairs officer that her grant had made Neugebauer's list.
"I'd known that two social psychology grants had been targeted the previous year, so I'd certainly contemplated the possibility," she says. "But out of the thousands of NIH grants...I've won some very strange and unfortunate lottery."
Studwell says that she is hopeful that this year's amendment, like last year's, will be removed from the bill in the House-Senate conference. She helped Wasserman and Murray spend a day on Capitol Hill in July, talking to their Iowa and New York representatives and to members of the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.
"The reason we visited was to put a human face on the unhappiness and damage that's done by singling out meritorious projects for ridicule, for no other reason than to make a political point," says Wasserman.
During the meetings, a staffer in the office of the chair of the House subcommittee, Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), expressed his support for the peer-review process, according to Murray.
"They were all very reassuring that this amendment would be removed," she says. In fact, in an August 2004 letter to fellow representatives, Regula and House Appropriations Committee Chair Bill Young (R-Fla.) asked that representatives who had questions about particular NIH research projects address those questions to NIH director Elias Zerhouni, MD, rather than introduce legislation to defund particular projects.
Still, the representatives could not make any guarantees about retaining funding for the two targeted projects this year, Wasserman says, nor about prohibiting this type of legislation again next year.