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Funding Outlook for NCI: News from the Experts

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).

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).

Thanks to Paige Green McDonald, Acting Chief, Basic and Biobehavioral Research branch, Behavioral Research Program, Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, National Cancer Institute, for sharing her views with PSA readers.

How are your programs being affected by the very lean budget in Fiscal Year 2006?
Despite the reduced budget in FY2006, the National Cancer Institute remains committed to advancing basic and applied research in the behavioral sciences that independently or in combination with biomedical approaches reduces cancer risk, incidence, morbidity, and mortality across the lifespan and the cancer control continuum. Most of the institute's behavioral science research is supported through the Behavioral Research Program (BRP) and the Office of Cancer Survivorship (OCS) within the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences (DCCPS). The BRP initiates, supports, and evaluates a comprehensive program of behavioral research ranging from basic behavioral and biobehavioral research to research on the development, testing, and dissemination of disease prevention and health promotion interventions in areas such as tobacco use, screening, health communication, dietary behavior, and sun protection. The OCS conducts and supports research that both examines and addresses the long- and short-term physical, psychological, social, and economic effects of cancer and its treatment among pediatric and adult survivors of cancer and their families.

So, how are we able to maintain such programs during a time of reduced budgets? We continue to garner support for psychological and behavioral science through collaboration, coordination, and leveraging existing resources. Indeed, the FY06 paylines for research program grants such as R01s and R21s are substantially lower than those seen in recent years; however, the institute has increased support for small research grants (i.e., R03s) and for new investigators.

Has the number of grant applications to your institute been affected by the budget?
Overall, the number of applications submitted to the institute continues to increase. We have not seen an appreciable change in the number of behavioral science applications to NCI.

Are there new areas of research emphasis at your institute for psychologists?
The breadth of the behavioral, psychological, and other social sciences research conducted and supported by NCI is remarkable. Current areas of emphasis include the following:

  • Behavior change

  • Biobehavioral mechanisms

  • Cancer screening

  • Cancer survivorship

  • Communication

  • Coping with cancer

  • Decision making

  • Health behavior (sun exposure, diet, and physical activity)

  • Health disparities

  • Risk perception

  • Smoking prevention and cessation

  • Theory, measurements, and methods

I would encourage psychologists interested in conducting cancer control research to become familiar with the scientific priorities of the division. The best way initially to do so is to become familiar with the DCCPS Web site. You will find information about programmatic areas within the BRP and the OCS. The Web page on funding opportunities lists program announcements (PAs) and request for applications (RFAs) that DCCPS leads or participates in as a scientific partner.

Our division has recently published two PAs (Decision Making in Cancer: Single-Event Decisions; and Decision Making in Health: Behavior Maintenance) to stimulate research on human decision-making processes and to bridge the gap between basic research in judgment and decision making and applied cancer control research. Our emphasis on decision making cuts across all programmatic areas within BRP and OCS. For example, we are interested in studies of decision making about cancer screening when evidence and/or guidelines are uncertain or conflicting, such as genetic testing, multiple screening tests, appropriate age to start and stop screening (e.g., mammography), frequency of screening, and prostate cancer screening. An additional area of emphasis in cancer screening is the development and testing of intervention strategies to modify personal, social, lifestyle, and institutional- and community-level factors known to limit or contribute to cancer screening use.

We seek to evaluate and promote healthy lifestyles (e.g., smoking cessation, physical activity, dietary changes, use of sunscreen, and reduction in alcohol consumption) for cancer prevention and control as well as enhanced survivorship after a cancer diagnosis. Related to this effort is our interest in energetics and energy balance (i.e., the relationship between diet, physical activity, and obesity) as demonstrated by our recent investment in the Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer (TREC) Centers.

In the area of health communication and informatics, opportunities exist for psychologists to utilize the Health Information National Trend Survey (HINTS). HINTS collects nationally representative data about the American public's use of cancer-related information. The survey provides updates on changing patterns, needs, and information opportunities in health, identifies changing communications trends and practices, assesses cancer information access and usage, provides information about how cancer risks are perceived, and offers a test bed to researchers to test new theories in health communication. eHealth is an emerging area and we are interested in the theoretical and methodological aspects of conducting such research.

The NCI has been working closely with the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) to push forward a concept of "populomics" to take its place alongside "genomics" and "proteomics" within the nation's emerging National Health Information Infrastructure. By introducing the term populomics, we argue that it is crucial for national planning and team science to include common data elements from the behavioral sciences into national assessments of population health. Behavioral measures are needed in the health care environment, in which the Institute of Medicine is urging reform to make the system more "patient-centric;" and in public health planning, in which national indices of progress on behavioral measures could guide policy and communication planning.

Opportunities will be made available in the near and foreseeable future to determine how to represent measures for aggregation at a population level. Behavioral scientists with content expertise can participate in nominating constructs for national aggregation; behavioral scientists with psychometric training can participating in proposing and refining measures; and behavioral scientists with epidemiologic, survey administration, or information technology ties can participate in designing the data structures needed for national aggregation.

Opportunities for psychologists abound in the arena of tobacco control research. Theoretical and basic research considering the mechanisms and mediators of behavioral change continues to be an important foundation for evolving translational work. Biobehavioral science concerning the gene-environment interactions leading to understanding of tobacco use, nicotine addiction, and cessation is an exciting arena for psychologist researchers. Further along the translation continuum, the emerging development of new medications continues to provide opportunities for identifying how they work, with whom, and under what circumstances. Psychologists can play a key role in working to increase the efficacy of existing treatments, especially in the area of behavioral interventions and combined behavioral/pharmacologic interventions. An exciting, burgeoning area is that of how policy influences behavior related to tobacco on a population level and how policy interacts with other determinants of tobacco use, such as social network, social support, and biological and behavioral factors. Lastly, psychologists are playing a leading role in cross-disciplinary research, in which they work collaboratively with scientists from diverse disciplines to address the complex problem of tobacco use and nicotine addiction.

From the survivorship end of the cancer control continuum, areas of emphasis include designing and delivering psychosocial interventions with the potential to improve quality of life, diminish adverse treatment-related symptoms, lengthen survival, and decrease the need for medical care among survivors. Furthermore, psychologists can contribute to our understanding of cancer caregiving in the familial context. We need to know more about the emotional, social, and physical costs and benefits of informal cancer caregiving. Research is also needed to enhance our understanding of survivors' cognitive beliefs about their survivorship status and public perceptions of cancer as a stigma.

Cross-cutting areas of emphasis include the development and evaluation of improved theories of health behavior and theory-based interventions to promote healthy behavior. For the biologically oriented psychologists, the division continues to cultivate animal and human research related to the influence of biobehavioral factors (e.g., life stress, psychological processes, and health behaviors) on cancer pathogenesis.

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

The NCI has two career development awards (K awards) for new investigators committed to careers in the fields of cancer prevention, control, or behavioral and population sciences. The Cancer Prevention, Control, and Population Sciences Career Development Award (K07) allows for specialized didactic study and a mentored research career development experience. The Transition Career Development Award (K22) supports the transition of mentored postdoctoral fellows into their first independent research positions. For clinical psychologists, the Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development Award (K23) supports the career development of investigators who have made a commitment to focus their research endeavors on patient-oriented research. Through the NCI's Comprehensive Minority Biomedical Branch (CMBB), additional career development opportunities are available for psychologists who are ethnic and racial minorities, come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, or have a disability.

The Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program provides training for individuals from the health professions and biomedical sciences to become leaders in cancer prevention and control. Through the program, fellows obtain a master of public health degree, mentored research experiences at NCI or at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and professional development/leadership training. DCCPS provides opportunities for fellows to focus on social and behavioral research as part of the mentored research experience.

Psychologists might also want to consider receiving fellowship training through the Cancer Research Training Award (CRTA). The CRTA fellowship provides a unique opportunity to work with NCI scientists who are leaders in behavioral science and cancer control.

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

As mentioned above, it is paramount that psychologists become familiar with the research priorities, resources, and opportunities for behavioral and social sciences research at NCI. I briefly described just a few examples of such priorities; more information about our major initiatives can be found online. I recommend taking the time to survey what is currently funded in the behavioral and social sciences. This can be done by exploring our portfolio and the Cancer Research Portfolio. I encourage psychologists to review the NCI Strategic Plan. Once you have done your background work, it is most important to contact program staff before submitting an application. Among other things, we can confirm that your research topic fits within a programmatic priority and provide input as to what mechanisms might be most appropriate. Our Web site also offers a useful systematic guide on grant proposal development.

It is important to become familiar with grant funding mechanisms, understand submission procedures, be aware of the NIH grants timeline, understand the peer review process, develop your idea and write a strong grant application.