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Hot off the Press: NIH tells Congress basic behavioral research is well supported
By Patricia Kobor
On May 15, the Director of NIH, Elias Zerhouni, sent a report to Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) responding to congressional concerns about NIH's support of basic behavioral and social sciences research. NIH had been asked to provide a report detailing its progress to the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees in Report No. 109-337, the conference agreement that provided funding for NIH for Fiscal Year 2006.
Several members of Congress had expressed concern that the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, whose mission is to fund basic research at NIH, has traditionally funded almost no basic behavioral or social sciences research. U.S. Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) and Patrick Kennedy (D-MA) organized several colleagues to send letters to encourage NIH to prevail on NIGMS to make additional investments in basic behavioral research, and to encourage other institutes and centers to do more as well.
The report seeks to mollify Congress that plenty is being done to support basic behavioral and social science research. NIGMS has increased its support with two program announcements and an interdisciplinary training program. Many institutes and centers, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute of Mental Health, and National Cancer Institute, have active programs of basic research. The report cites NIH estimates that of the $3 billion going to behavioral and social sciences research, approximately $1 billion is considered to constitute basic research.
So-- is NIH doing enough? We in the Science Policy Office think this is a good context for the maxim, "What you see depends on where you look." Yes, NIH is supporting a lot of basic research, but some types of basic behavioral research do not have stable homes at NIH. There is a double standard when it comes to research that is not done in a disease context or within a disease population. Basic research on group behavior is not automatically assumed to be relevant to health, e.g. the spread of influenza, whereas basic cell biology research is. Social psychologists have seen some traditional funding sources dry up. Scientists who do research on language origin and acquisition, especially with bird models, may have a hard time getting support at the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Scientists who study basic risk and decisionmaking have had little support from NIH. As NIH budget growth has slowed, and the success rates at most institutes have fallen, it is no wonder that some researchers feel discouraged. The NIH report implies that times are tough for lots of sciences, not only for the behavioral and social sciences.
So-- is this all just a budget issue? We think not. Unlike NIH, we at APA are not ready to declare victory. The behavioral and social sciences have come a long way at NIH, but as some institutes change priorities, and some institutes who ought to change priorities don't, there are still lots of areas in which advocacy is needed so that the playing field is level for behavioral and social science. We don't believe NIH is supporting enough basic behavioral research, or enough translational and applied research, and will continue to make our case to sympathetic members of Congress and the NIH leadership.
Please let us know your comments on the NIH report and its support of basic behavioral and social science research.