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Funding Outlook for NIDA, NIA: News from the Experts

In response to budget cuts, APA's Science Policy Office put questions to several institute officials and program officers.

In Fiscal Year 2006, the National Institutes of Health received its smallest budget increase since the mid-1960s-less than one percent--and actually saw its budget cut after a 1% across-the-board cut was applied. How will that affect research funding and programs at the institutes that fund behavioral research? Is there any good news amidst the bad? APA's Science Policy Office put the following questions to several institute officials and program officers, and will publish their responses in the next few issues of Psychological Science Agenda (PSA).

Good Advice from NIDA Staff

PSA thanks David Shurtleff, PhD, Director of the Basic Neuroscience and Behavioral Research Division at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Lisa Onken, PhD, Chief of the Behavioral and Integrative Treatment Branch, for sharing their advice.

How are your programs being affected by the very lean budget in Fiscal Year 2006?
Shurtleff: For Fiscal Year 2006, it's likely NIDA will fund fewer new/competing research project grants than in the past.
Onken: With a very lean NIH budget, it is possible that fewer grants will be funded in the future. However, every attempt will be made to maintain a behavioral and cognitive treatment field that is not only surviving, but thriving.

Has the number of grant applications to your institute been affected by the budget?
Shurtleff: It is too early to know for certain whether the number of grant applications will be affected by the budget. The number of grant applications received per review cycle has increased over the past two years for NIDA. With the likelihood of fewer applications being funded, it's likely that more applicants will need to submit revised applications to achieve a competitive score in this funding climate.

Are there new areas of research emphasis at your institute for psychologists?

Shurtleff: Behavioral and cognitive science research continues to be an important part of NIDA-supported research. Of particular interest is the study of co-occurring disorders with substance abuse, adolescent vulnerability to addiction, and genetic and environmental factors associated with drug abuse and addiction. Research focusing on decision making and risky behavior in the context of HIV/AIDS and drug abuse is an important area of research for NIDA. Because drug addiction is a complex bio-behavioral disorder, it's important to adopt multidisciplinary approaches that foster collaboration between psychological researchers together with researchers from other disciplines, such as neuroscience, and genetics. A recently released RFA, DA06-004, "Social Neuroscience," reflects NIDA's interests in collaborative, multi-disciplinary and multi-level approaches to understanding drug abuse and addiction. Both human and animal-model-based behavioral research in these and other related areas are supported by NIDA.

Onken: Behavioral and cognitive treatment research, as described in the Behavioral Therapies Development program announcement continues to flourish at NIDA within the broader context of the multi-disciplinary, translational framework of the NIH Roadmap. Although it is no longer "business as usual," - some applications that would have been considered competitive in the recent past may no longer be as competitive -- the current zeitgeist environment has created new, different and exciting opportunities. Also, the Institute is particularly concerned about attracting top-notch new investigators, so new PI applications may get a second or even third look.

Although it wouldn't be possible to list everything of high interest to the Institute, there are a few areas in the behavioral and cognitive treatment field that do stand out. Applications that attempt to determine the basic behavioral, cognitive, and neurobiological mechanisms underlying effective psychosocial interventions (i.e., their "mechanism of action") are of particular interest. Such applications inherently bridge basic and clinical science, another Institute priority. Translational research that attempts to utilize basic science principles and mechanisms of behavior change in the development and refinement of treatments - especially research that takes into account human development - is also of interest. This includes linking what we are learning about brain development in the cognitive, affective, and social domains to behavioral treatment research, and research with a goal of understanding the neurobiology of psychosocial treatment. Applications that seek to modify existing efficacious treatments to make them retain their efficacy while becoming more "community-friendly" (e.g., easier to administer, less costly, less complex, less lengthy, components or training materials computerized, etc.) are also of very high interest. Behavioral and cognitive treatment research on methamphetamine addiction is of great interest, as is research that also addresses the HIV risk behavior of methamphetamine addicts and research that integrates targeted HIV risk reduction interventions - particularly in non-injection drug abusers- into drug abuse treatment research. At the intersection of HIV/AIDS research and treatment, research designed to better understand the factors that influence adherence to medications remains of great interest. And of course multidisciplinary research proposals are of great interest.
To help achieve the goal of a thriving behavioral and cognitive treatment research field, the Behavioral and Integrative Treatment Branch is seeking a new Program Officer.

Are there training or retraining mechanisms in your institute that psychologists should take more advantage of?
The Mentored Career Development Awards (e.g., K01, K08) geared toward newly independent researchers, is one avenue available for psychologists to gain additional training in an area of research that could complement their existing expertise. Early career investigators should also be aware of the new "NIH Pathway to Independence Award program." The program provides the opportunity for promising postdoctoral scientists to receive both mentored and independent research support from the same award. Psychologists should also consider collaborating with researchers who have complementary expertise and training that allows for a multidisciplinary approach to the study of drug addiction.

Onken: In addition to the mentored career development awards ("K" awards), there are National Research Service Awards, including T32s (Institutional Research Training Grants) and F awards (Individual Predoctoral Fellowships. Also, predoctoral students can consider applying for a Dissertation Awards. Finally, new investigators should look into the NIDA B/START (PAR-03-146 Behavioral Science Track Award for Rapid Transition) and I/START (PAR-06-092 Imaging-Science Track Award for Research Transition) programs, which are designed specifically to support scientists early in their careers.

What can psychologists do to improve their chances of being funded?"
Shurtleff: First and foremost all applicants should talk with program staff before submitting a grant application to NIDA to consider how NIDA's priorities fit their research interests. It's important that, for the most part, research be hypothesis driven with clear objectives and specific aims. The applicant must clearly state how the proposed research relates to understanding the antecedents and consequences of drug abuse and addiction, particularly in those cases where the research does not propose to study drugs of abuse or drug addicted individuals.

Onken: In addition to speaking with someone at NIDA within their area of scientific interest, applicants should consider their ideas within the context of the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary priorities that are being fostered through initiatives such as the NIH Roadmap and the NIH Neuroscience Blueprint.

NIA Budget Leaner, But Funding Opportunities Abound

Thanks to Richard Suzman, PhD, Director of the Social and Behavioral Research Program, and to Molly Wagster, PhD, Director of the Neuropsychology of Aging Branch of the Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging Program at the National Institute on Aging, for sharing their views with PSA readers.

How is your program being affected by the very lean budget in Fiscal Year 2006?

Suzman: Grant funds are tighter than ever, but this needs to be placed in perspective. NIA's budget along with NIH's did double, and even though the budget has declined in terms of purchasing power since 2003, in the current fiscal year it is slightly over a billion dollars. We continue to fund a substantial amount of outstanding behavioral research and innovative and significant new projects. In over 20 years at NIA, I cannot remember a more exciting time for the science. However, it is especially ironic that just as behavioral science in our area is achieving a level of maturity that suggests we should be mounting more large scale behavioral interventions, our tightened budget requires that we ration the interventions that we can support.

Wagster: We have a funding policy statement for FY 2006 on our web site stating that we expect to fund to about the 10.5 percentile, but only after an average 18% budget cut. We hope that by the end of the fiscal year we will be able to reach beyond the 10.5 percentile for funding and that we will achieve a success rate of approximately 18% for research project grants in FY 2006.

Has the number of grant applications to your Institute been affected by the budget?
Wagster: There was a small increase in overall number of applications received for the first two funding rounds of FY 2006 as compared to the same two funding rounds of FY2005. So we are continuing to receive numbers of applications at a similar, or even slightly greater, rate as in the recent past.

Are there new areas of research emphasis at your Institute for psychologists?

Suzman: The Behavioral and Social Research (BSR) program is encouraging innovative research in a number of domains including: (1) emerging interdisciplinary fields such as behavior genetics, neuroeconomics, social affective neuroscience, behavioral economics, the measurement of wellbeing and burden of illness; (2) interventions and translation of basic cognition research to useful ways of thinking about how cognition is used in the everyday world; (3) decision making and the development of methodological and technological tools and methods to improve how information is used and processed by the public; (4) projects that take advantage of available large data sets to focus on immediate problems or combine data from several projects. Almost all of the data from our largest longitudinal studies are rapidly and freely available equally to all investigators. This is a treasure chest that has not been fully appreciated by psychologists, especially given the increasingly high quality cognitive and psychosocial measures. The new National Academy of Science report commissioned by BSR and just published, When I'm 64 discusses directions in social, developmental, personality and cognitive psychology of aging and suggests new research directions. Agendas and summaries of our workshops can be found on our Institute website and provide a good way to keep abreast with the latest developments on areas such as neuroeconomics; social neuroscience; wellbeing; decision making; cognitive interventions; the social, physiological, and psychological predictors of resilience and vulnerability to late life diseases; the impact of age-related changes in social networks, etc. In areas that already have a good deal of research underway, especially ones that have substantial ongoing studies, we are going to have to look far more carefully at applications that are just minor variations on the existing studies rather major innovations. For that reason it has become far more important for prospective applicants to check with staff before submitting new applications. We are going to have to find ways to better manage areas such as behavioral interventions, caregiving and driving, to give just a few examples, where we are seeing applications that are somewhat redundant with studies already funded, and to do this without dampening the creativity and innovativeness of investigator initiated applications.

Wagster: In the past two years, some of the workshop foci for the Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging (NNA) program have included cognitive reserve, molecular and cellular basis of cognitive aging, factors for cognitive vitality in the older adult, and basic and clinical research on estrogen and cognition and summaries of these also can be found on our website. The NIA is actively involved in the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research. Several training and tool development funding opportunities are available through the Blueprint including a contract opportunity, released March 13th, to develop a brief, but comprehensive, measurement tool for assessment of cognitive, emotional, sensory and motor function. The NIA also has been an integral part, along with NIMH and NINDS, in the trans-NIH initiative, The Cognitive and Emotional Health Project. This is a resource-building and information-gathering effort to identify what currently is known about factors for maintaining cognitive and emotional health in the adult. NNA supports a portfolio of research that is structured vertically and ranges from molecules to behavior. We continue to support research on the behavioral and biological mechanisms of cognitive, emotional, sensory and motor function with age, the integrative behavioral neuroscience of sleep and neuroendocrinology; the molecular and cellular neuroscience of brain aging and behavior; and etiological, epidemiological, and clinical research on dementias of aging. We have an emphasis on how interdisciplinary science in epidemiological, genetic, imaging and molecular and cellular neuroscience can illuminate the normal changes that occur with aging, the interface between normal aging and neurological disease, including Alzheimer's disease (AD), and the array of behavioral, life course and molecular interventions that together maintain behavioral health as we age. Translational research on normal cognitive aging and AD is emphasized with 2 program announcements with set asides and continuing opportunities for clinical trials. Normal cognitive aging is part of the mandate of the AD centers, and samples and data are available for research projects.

Are there training or retraining mechanisms in your Institute that psychologists should take more advantage of?

Wagster: At the NIH level, a new mechanism (K99/R00) is available that combines a fellowship component with an independent research grant component, the latter which can be transported to one's first independent academic position. We continue to support post-doctoral training of young investigators through the individual mentored post-doctoral fellowship awards (F32) and the institutional post-doctoral training grants (T32). NIA also supports mentored K awards to research psychologists and clinical psychologists interested in research who have recognized faculty positions (a chart of the Research Career Development Awards offered by NIA can be found on their website. A variety of special funding opportunities are available to individuals from diverse backgrounds, including pre-doctoral dissertation awards.)

What can psychologists do to improve their chances of being funded?

Suzman: Take advantage of special training opportunities such as the RAND mini med school for social and behavioral scientists and their summer institute, and the NIA Summer Institute.

Wagster: Probably the single most important thing one can do is to talk with program staff at NIA before submitting an application. Staff can provide information and advice on how the topic fits with the NIA's interests, tips on what reviewers like to see in applications, what study sections might provide the best expertise to review the applicant's proposal, and what mechanisms may be most appropriate to use to apply for funding.