Executive Director's Column

Healthy Science at NIH

Advancing our understanding and treatment of cancer, drug abuse, age-related disorders, or mental disorders requires a deep understanding of every facet, every cause, and every interaction.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have an enormous responsibility: to make investments today that will allow better healthcare tomorrow. As any investment advisor will tell you, the key to success is a balanced and diverse portfolio.

When it comes to investments in health-related research, a balanced scientific portfolio is especially important. One reason is that health-related problems are multifaceted and governed by multiple causes, often interacting in complex ways. Advancing our understanding and treatment of cancer, drug abuse, age-related disorders, or mental disorders requires a deep understanding of every facet, every cause, and every interaction.

Another reason for supporting a balanced scientific portfolio is that we often simply do not know where the next great discovery will be. It is scientific folly to simply look where the light happens to be shining. Science is most productive, and leads to the greatest innovation, when it is allowed to explore all avenues.

Those of us who work in the social and behavioral sciences are especially sensitive to these points. We worry that many of the NIH programs have moved to exclude social and behavioral science from their portfolios. An improperly balanced scientific portfolio is destined to fail, especially when it comes to the health of human beings.

This state of imbalance may be true for some of the institutes of NIH. Yet, most of them understand the importance of social and behavioral science, and they continue to include (if not expand) these parts of the portfolio. This is a formula for success.

Consider these three healthy examples:

  • The National Cancer Institute (NCI) supports a vigorous Behavioral Research Program, including work on behavior change, communications, decision making, health disparities, and theoretical and methodological innovation in all these areas. The goal of this program is to "increase the breadth, depth, and quality of cancer prevention and control behavioral science."

  • The National Institute on Aging (NIA) is very active in its support of both Behavioral and Social Research and Neuroscience and Neuropsychology. These programs encompass basic research in social psychology, cognition, cognitive neuroscience, memory, human factors, personality, behavioral medicine, development, sleep, sensory processes, motor functioning, and other areas deeply rooted in psychology.

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is renowned for its support of Basic Neuroscience and Behavioral Research. The Behavioral and Cognitive Science Research Branch within this Division recognizes that "behavioral and cognitive variables are important as antecedent processes in the vulnerability to start, continue or relapse to drug abuse, as factors in the transition between these stages of abuse, and as consequences or adverse outcomes of abuse." This is a clear recognition of both the importance and complexity of behavioral facets underlying drug abuse.

Many of the other NIH institutes are pursuing similarly well-balanced portfolios. They are certain to deliver on the NIH mission of improving the health of the nation. Other institutes are not so well-balanced, and they clearly risk falling short on the grand mission.

Over the next year, the Psychological Science Agenda (PSA) and the Science Policy Insider News [now APA Science Policy News] will feature coverage of these and other federal funding agencies that honor a healthy, broad, and balanced scientific approach to addressing the nation's needs. The goal is to foster a better appreciation within our own research communities of available opportunities and resources, and to promote the productive approaches of the agencies.

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