Science News

Amendment Targets NIMH Research Again

Sandra Murray from SUNY at Buffalo is investigating factors that contribute to successful marriages and how personal feelings of self-esteem influence the capacity to sustain satisfying close relationships.

By Karen Studwell

For the second year in a row, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) has succeeded in his efforts to pass an amendment that would rescind funding for peer-reviewed behavioral research projects supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The amendment was attached to the FY 2006 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education appropriations bill that the House of Representatives passed on June 24th. The amendment would prevent the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from continuing to fund two psychological scientists working on quite different areas of behavioral research.

Ed Wasserman, from the University of Iowa, conducts research that seeks to increase understanding of vision and perception using pigeons as models. Sandra Murray, from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, is investigating factors that contribute to successful marriages and how personal feelings of self-esteem influence the capacity to sustain satisfying close relationships. They now join the ranks of other esteemed scientists who have been targeted in recent years by policymakers concerned about how the NIH is prioritizing its research portfolio after its budget nearly doubled in the past five years.

While being singled out among the tens of thousands of other scientists would be alarming for any scientist, leaders in the administration and Congress offered their support for scientific integrity. Calling the amendment a form of "unjustified scientific censorship," NIH Director Elias Zerhouni further stated that "it undermines the historical strength of American science which is based on our world renowned, apolitical and transparent peer review process."

Speaking on the House floor against the amendment, Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA) said that "the Neugebauer amendment…. represents a philosophical assault on the peer review process that serves as a hallowed barrier to scientific censorship… This is a slippery slope that I hope conferees will not slide down."

In a letter to each member of the House of Representatives, APA CEO Norman Anderson also stated, "For Congress to defund any grants in violation of NIH's exacting process is a blow to science, to scientists, and ultimately, to public health."

The result in the House debate illustrates the uphill battle that scientists and organizations like APA face in educating policymakers about the importance of preserving the integrity of the peer review process. Since 2003, Karen Studwell of APA's science policy office has co-chaired the Coalition to Protect Research (CPR) with Angela Sharpe of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA). The coalition was formed after a similar amendment was narrowly defeated in 2003. CPR's sixty member organizations alerted their members days before the Neugebauer amendment was introduced urging their members to contact their Representatives and request that they vote no on the Neugebauer amendment. Unfortunately, the amendment was accepted with minimal debate and without a recorded vote as part of a group of amendments, so no members had a chance to record a vote. The funding bill was later approved by a vote of 250-151.

Not all hope is lost, however, as the Senate will begin marking up its version of the appropriations bill this week. Once the Senate approves its bill, likely without a similar amendment attached, it will be sent to a conference committee where any differences with the House bill will be reconciled. It is in that process where the Neugebauer amendment language is expected to be removed by those Members of Congress who have more experience with the scientific peer review system.

On July 20th, APA has arranged for Wasserman and Murray to meet with the New York and Iowa delegations to discuss how this amendment has affected their own research projects and the importance of protecting the peer review process from political interference. It is expected that the conference committee may complete its work on the FY06 funding bill before Congress breaks for the month-long August recess.

Read APA's letter to the House

To read more about this issue, please go to APA's Science Policy website.