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NIH Working Group on Basic Behavioral and Social Science Research Reports at Advisory Committee Meeting

The Working Group released an inventory of basic behavioral and social research in each of the NIH institutes that reported supporting it, with titles of some grants shown as examples.

By Patricia Kobor

The Advisory Committee of the Director of NIH heard a presentation December 2, 2004, on the recently released draft report of the NIH Working Group on Basic Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. Working Group members Susan Fiske, Robert Levenson, and Bruce McEwen, along with chair Linda Waite, presented the draft report and its recommendations to the NIH Director and his advisory committee. The Working Group was established in 2003 by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni with the charge to review the portfolio of basic behavioral and social science research funded by NIH and to make recommendations on how to strengthen basic research.

The Working Group released an inventory of basic behavioral and social research in each of the NIH institutes that reported supporting it, with titles of some grants shown as examples. It also released a report with recommendations on how to strengthen basic research. Those recommendations were: 1) Task the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) with coordinating trans-institute basic research initiatives, and 2) to designate a home for basic research that is not differentiated by disease by establishing a branch or a program in a non-categorical institute (either the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which funds basic research; the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; or the National Institute on Aging).

While the latter recommendation technically overreached the group's charge, Waite explained to the Advisory Council that undifferentiated basic research needs a home at NIH, especially now that the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is refocusing its research portfolio toward translational research. Several NIH institutes support basic research, but even though basic questions are being addressed, they are often posed in populations reflecting, or within the context of, the disease mission of those institutes. Waite characterized the first recommendation as encouraging basic research in a "top-down" approach, through Requests for Applications, and the second as a means to provide a stable home where investigator-initiated basic research would be welcomed.

Zerhouni and the advisory committee expressed several concerns about the second recommendation. Some advisory committee members asked why NSF was not the more appropriate home for this type of basic behavioral and social science research. Zerhouni noted the tightening budgets at NIH and appeared to question why he or the advisory council ought to dictate to any institute what sort of research it should fund. He didn't question the importance of the research, but noted that the amount of basic research tallied in the report, approximately $936 million, was not an insignificant amount of money. The Working Group members noted that the inventory they developed showed that almost all examples of basic research included in the $936 million were projects posed within the context of the disease missions of the institutes. The challenge in the meeting was to explain why undifferentiated basic behavioral and social science was as relevant to health as, for example, undifferentiated research on cellular function.

The presenters attempted to answer the concerns posed by Zerhouni and other members of the Advisory Council. Fiske pointed out that there is a strong body of research on how lack of social support adversely affects cardiac patients. While NIH has supported this applied research, she questioned whether today's NIH would support basic research on social isolation and social support that made the clinical research possible.

Even if the reception by the Advisory Committee was more tentative than hoped, APA and other organizations will share the Working Group's recommendations with congressional allies and discuss them with individual institutes to see if a more welcoming climate can be established for basic behavioral and social sciences research at NIH. While the report is still in draft form now, the Director's Advisory Committee is expected to discuss its approval before the committee's next meeting in June 2005.

For additional information, see: Membership of the NIH Director's Advisory Committee and the Working Group on Basic Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.