NSF official welcomes proposals for animal behavior research

Over the last two years, the APA Science Directorate has discussed with officials at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and members of Congress the difficulties in obtaining research funding that are faced by scientists who conduct basic research on behavioral mechanisms in non-human animals.  Responding to these concerns, the deputy director of NSF’s Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences has publicly reiterated that this division is open to receiving proposals for research on animal behavior mechanisms.

In previous years, much basic research on animal behavior -- which includes studies of perception, learning, cognition, motivation, and social behavior -- was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).   As NIMH has reduced its support for basic behavioral research over the last five years, many animal scientists sought funding within the NSF Biological Sciences Directorate, which includes a program in animal behavior (now called “behavioral systems”).   However, the bulk of current funding in that program is focused on ecological and evolutionary topics, rather than on behavioral and psychological mechanisms underlying behavior. 

Thus, psychological scientists conducting basic research on animal behavior have perceived a lack of a reliable source of federal funding in recent years.  APA, as well as scientists advocating on their own behalf, have called upon NSF to support a comprehensive range of non-human behavioral research (see March 2009 PSA).

It looks like the situation may now be clearer.  Leaders of NSF’s Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) Division, which funds a great deal of psychological science, have reiterated to APA that the division supports all areas of research that can enhance the understanding of human behavior and cognition, including research with non-human animals.  In an interview appearing in the July issue of PSA, Amber Story, who recently became deputy director of the BCS Division, invited scientists to submit proposals for research with non-human animals:

APA: Does BCS only fund research with humans, or does it also support research involving non-human animals?

Dr. Story: BCS does support research with non-human animals and we welcome proposals for such work.  The proposals that are competitive are those that have implications for understanding human psychological processes and behavior.  Animal research is supported in a variety of programs.  You can check the list of recently funded grants on the NSF website and talk with a program officer to determine the best program for a particular project.

Indeed, the BCS Division has recently funded a number of non-human animal projects addressing psychological processes, including work on causal reasoning in rats and studies of attention and social cognition in non-human primates.   The qualification noted by Dr. Story that non-human research should have implications for understanding humans is similar to the expectation held by NIMH when it funded work in this area.

APA encourages psychologists working on animal behavior to explore NSF as a source of funding.  As Dr. Story points out in the full interview, it is useful before submitting a full proposal to have a conversation with an NSF program officer to determine the most appropriate program and to obtain advice on how best to present the research.  

APA will continue to press NSF to include animal behavior research within formal funding solicitations and to clarify its interest in animal behavior research in the program descriptions on its website.  APA will also monitor future funding patterns to ensure that psychological research on animal behavior is supported.   At this point, APA is not asking for a separate animal behavior program to be created within BCS (as some scientists have called for), but has not ruled out endorsing that idea in the future.  Beyond NSF, APA will also continue to encourage support for basic animal behavior research by components of the National Institutes of Health, including through special NIH initiatives such as OppNet.

Scientists who have questions or comments about NSF funding for animal behavior research -- or run into obstacles in obtaining such funding -- are encouraged to contact the APA Science Directorate.  You may contact either Heather O’Beirne Kelly, Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer, or Howard Kurtzman, Deputy Executive Director (phone: 202-336-6000).