Executive Director's Column

Who Sets the Funding Priorities?

Most of the federal funds for research in psychology come from NIH and NSF. Both of these agencies have shifted their priorities over the past decade or so, sometimes in ways that cause concern (if not panic) among psychological scientists.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

This is the time of year when the President's budget for the next fiscal year is rolled out. Our attention, of course, is focused on those portions of the budget that provide funding for psychological science. Will NSF get a much-rumored cut in its budget? How will NIH do? The concern is especially intense this year, against the backdrop of shifting priorities at NIH and an overall tightening of the federal budget. It seems timely, then, to step back and ask the question: Who sets the priorities of the federal funding agencies?

The agencies that fund science were all created to satisfy a specific mission. For NIH, it is to fund research that will help us to cure diseases and promote good health. Although we don't think of NSF as a "mission" agency, it too has a mission: to nurture discoveries and new knowledge in science and engineering. Each agency's mission, then, provides the framework for setting its own priorities.

The agencies that fund scientific research enjoy incredible latitude in prioritizing their budgets. The administration and our elected representatives know the general mission of each agency, and trust the leadership of the agencies to determine specific priorities. This does not mean that the federal funding agencies have carte blanche in setting their priorities. Far from it. They need to answer to congress each year, explaining how their budget was spent the year before and how they plan to spend next year's budget. They are scrutinized by the public, and by groups such as APA who apply constant pressure on behalf of their scientific communities.

The system is a good one. It provides for checks and balances, reassuring taxpayers that their money is being spent wisely. It allows the administration and our congressional representatives to make funding priorities responsive to national needs. It leaves most of the decision making to leaders who have deep expertise in the substantive work of the agencies. And it gives scientists a voice in helping to set priorities.

Most of the federal funds for research in psychology come from NIH and NSF. Both of these agencies have shifted their priorities over the past decade or so, sometimes in ways that cause concern (if not panic) among psychological scientists. It used to be that psychologists could win funding from NIH, even when their proposed research was not directly or obviously related to health. Now, the connection to health must be evident and relatively deep. It used to be that NSF prioritized its funding by core scientific disciplines, allocating money specifically for such fields as cognitive psychology, social psychology, or animal behavior. Now, the research must be linked across disciplinary boundaries.

This is all good news for those of us who work on problems with direct relevance to illness, disease, and health. It is welcome news for those among us who work collaboratively with scientists in other disciplines. Indeed, the psychological scientists who fall into these categories seem to be reaping the benefits right now when it comes to federal grants for research.

Others among us are not so happy. The shifting priorities are leaving us behind. We want to continue doing the fine work we have always been doing, and we want to continue receiving grants from NSF and NIH for doing it. Yet we are being told that our research no longer fits - that the work we do is no longer a priority for the agency. We demand to know who made that capricious decision. Was it congress? Was it the President? Was it the head of an NIH institute? Was it the taxpayers? Was it other scientists? The answer, on all counts: yes.

To remain faithful to their missions, the federal funding agencies must be dynamic and responsive to changes in science, technology, and society. This means that shifts in funding priorities are almost certain to occur. We may not agree with those shifts, and they may in fact be unwise. Still, we need to understand the motivation for them. If, on balance, they help an agency to better achieve its mission, then we have a responsibility to go with it. If they are unwise, we have a responsibility to speak up and say so.

All of this can be frustrating for scientists and for scientific progress. One reason is that we don't always know where the next great discovery will be. We can't predict which line of investigation will lead to a dead-end, and which will produce the cure for a pernicious disease. Indeed, this is our main argument against being overly strategic in setting the priorities of funding agencies. What if those priorities turn out to be the wrong ones, the dead-ends?

This is a good argument, yet I fear that it is no longer a persuasive one. Perhaps it is the press of recent social events, or an increasing sense of urgency to solve problems, or simply a lack of trust in science. Whatever it is, the federal funding priorities are shifting in response. I think we need to understand and respect that shift.