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Working Group on Basic Behavioral and Social Science Research Meets at NIH

The Office of the Director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has organized a special working group to assess the basic research program in the behavioral and social sciences across the NIH.

By Patricia Kobor

The Office of the Director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has organized a special working group to assess the basic research program in the behavioral and social sciences across the NIH. The working group is chaired by sociologist Linda Waite of the University of Chicago. It will report to the Advisory Council of the NIH Director in December of 2004. The working group met for the first time on Wednesday, April 28, with the first half of the meeting open to the public.

Raynard Kington, Deputy Director of the NIH (also former Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research at NIH), spoke first and reviewed the charge to the group. The working group will address issues related to NIH's support for research in the behavioral and social sciences that is fundamental to the prevention, treatment, and cure of illnesses but is not directed at a specific disease or condition. The group will review the existing portfolio of basic behavioral and social sciences research across the NIH; identify areas of opportunity in those sciences consistent with NIH's mission, that NIH should consider supporting; examine the barriers to the submission and peer review of basic research grant applications; make recommendations for improving the basic behavioral and social science program of the NIH and report on those recommendations to the Advisory Committee of the NIH Director.

A panel representing the scientific community presented their views: Steven Breckler (Executive Director for Science - American Psychological Association); Barbara Wanchisen (Executive Director of the Federation); Alan Kraut (Executive Director - American Psychological Society); Richard Shiffrin (from Indiana University, representing a group of basic researchers involved with the National Academy of Sciences); and Howard Silver (Executive Director -Consortium of Social Science Associations). Some of the speakers highlighted particular areas of basic research that are underrepresented at NIH, such as research on decision-making. Others provided information on why basic behavioral and social science is key to the NIH mission. Dr. Breckler, who recently arrived at his APA position from the National Science Foundation, explained that most NIH-funded basic research would not be fundable at NSF, to address an argument made by some at NIH that NSF is the better home for basic research.

Attention to basic research at NIH has been prompted in part by advocacy from APA and the American Psychological Society to encourage the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) to fund basic behavioral research. Although suggestions to this effect have come via congressional correspondence with NIGMS leaders, and via congressional report language, NIGMS has demurred.

Attendees at the April 28 working group meeting were eager to hear the presentations of Jeremy Berg, the new Director of NIGMS, and Thomas Insel, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), whose vision of reshaping the NIMH research portfolio has prompted concern from basic scientists, and whose institute is most likely the largest source of funds for basic behavioral research. Berg presented an overview of the NIGMS with some discussion of where he believes behavioral science might be useful to his institute's mission, an issue that will likely be assessed by the Working Group. Insel discussed the current organizational distribution of funds at NIMH and stated that he is interested in supporting basic science relevant to the "disease-based" mission of the NIMH, and hopes for the reorganized NIMH to speed the translation of basic findings to clinical advances.

After the presentations were concluded, there was discussion on the possibility of establishing an NIH institute or branch of an institute devoted to basic behavioral and social science, but there was no consensus on whether that was a good idea. The remainder of the meeting was not open to the public. There will be additional meetings of this group, before its report is presented to the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director in December. The NIH Liaison to this group is Virginia Cain, Acting Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.

The scientists serving on the working group can be found on the NIH website. Psychologist members of the Working Group include Laura Carstensen, Stanford University; Richard J. Davidson, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Susan Fiske, Princeton University; Frances Horowitz, City University of New York; James Jackson, University of Michigan; Robert Levenson, University of California- Berkeley; and William T. Greenough, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.

APA will continue to monitor this review. Contact Pat Kobor in the Public Policy Office with comments or for additional information.