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NIMH Reorganization Creates Uncertain Future for Basic Behavioral Science

NIMH's organizational structure is being re-focused to facilitate and accelerate translational and interdisciplinary science, to more clearly identify brain-behavior pathophysiology - and to translate this knowledge into developing more effective interventions that target symptoms and functioning.

By Karen Studwell

While plans for the NIMH reorganization have been underway for nearly a year, NIMH Director Tom Insel formally announced the changes at the National Mental Health Advisory Council meeting on September 21st. As Insel previewed in the July Psychological Science Agenda, the institute's organizational structure is being re-focused to facilitate and accelerate translational and interdisciplinary science, to more clearly identify brain-behavior pathophysiology - and to translate this knowledge into developing more effective interventions that target symptoms and functioning.

The focus of the new organization on neuroscience and translation is evident in the titles of the 5 new divisions created to span extramural research: the Division of Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science, the Division of Adult Translational Research and Treatment Development, the Division of Pediatric Translational and Treatment Development, the Division of AIDS and Health and Behavior Research, and the Division of Services and Intervention Research.

During the past year, Norman Anderson and other APA staff have encouraged Dr. Insel and NIMH to continue supporting a comprehensive research agenda that includes a strong commitment to basic behavioral research, broadly defined. Steve Breckler, APA's Executive Director for Science, addressed the Council in May 2004, questioning whether a reorganization that focuses on translation at the expense of basic research may be a shortsighted approach. At the September 21st Council meeting, APA's Associate Executive Director for Science Merry Bullock reiterated that, "translational work to apply research for treatment, diagnosis and prevention requires a strong and vibrant pool of research on the basic side of the translation equation, research that at first blush may not have a focus on mental disorders."

Despite Director Tom Insel's assurances that there will still be a home for basic behavioral research there is much uncertainty about where some areas of research fit in the new structure. It is clear that some areas of basic behavioral science, especially those directly tied to brain-behavior relations or mental disorders, will still have support within the basic science division, as will much of the research on human and animal cognition, learning, memory, attention, and decision-making.

It is less clear how basic research on affect and social behavior and social cognition that does not have a direct impact on mental and behavioral disorders will be supported. For example, areas that were traditionally funded by the basic science division, such as much social and personality psychology, are being moved into the new translational research or AIDS and Health and Behavior divisions, with an increased requirement to re-focus work on the research's application to the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment for mental disorders. To ensure that there is sufficient expertise within the new divisions, NIMH is seeking to recruit several new program officers in areas relevant to translation, including basic behavioral science.

As the rules for NIMH funding change, it becomes especially important to review the new documents and also to contact the program officers who are listed as contacts within the research branch where your research may be funded. Funding and contact information is available at the NIHM website. APA will continue to monitor changes within NIMH, and disseminate information on NIMH priorities and opportunities. We welcome your feedback via email on how the reorganization at NIMH has or will impact your work. More information is also available on the NIMH website.