Interview

Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging

NIA official discusses new directions and opportunities in behavioral research on aging.

The American Psychological Association is touching base with federal research funding managers over the next few months to learn how their agencies are coping with current budget challenges. The federal budget for Fiscal Year 2011 was only recently made final, and it is already clear that negotiations over the 2012 budget will be a battleground for funding cuts.  How’s a scientist to cope?  Fortunately, opportunities can still be found.  APA is talking to people who can help scientists navigate these difficult times.

Richard SuzmanRichard Suzman is the Director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Research (BSR) at the National Institute on Aging (NIA).   Prior to that appointment, he was Chief of Demography and Population Epidemiology at NIA. He also served as the Director of the Office of the Demography of Aging, the focal point for demographic statistics and research within NIA and across other Federal and international agencies. 

Dr. Suzman was a creator and Staff Director of the Federal Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, a coordinating organization made up of over 35 Federal agencies and jointly chaired by the National Center for Health Statistics, Bureau of the Census, and NIA.

After attending the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University, and a Diploma of Social Anthropology from Oxford University.  He was a Post Doctoral Fellow at Stanford University, where he also served briefly on the faculty. He was formerly on the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco, Medical School.

Dr. Suzman corresponded with Pat Kobor of APA’s Science Government Relations Office by email in early May 2011. Here are excerpts from their discussion.


Kobor: Despite the best efforts of research advocates like APA, the Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 budgets of NIH institutes are flat or slightly below FY 2010 levels. How is NIA managing?

Dr. Suzman: Since NIH’s budget has declined in real terms since 2003 and the nominal budget declined by 1% in Year FY 2011, these are indeed challenging times. Last FY (2010), NIA’s funding line was exceptionally tight, and the Institute further intensified efforts to expand opportunities to individual investigators. The strategies included instituting controls on grants that exceed $500,000 direct costs in any year as well as other approaches. These strategies have paid off and our funding lines have improved In FY 2011. Our most recent funding policy now has different pay-lines for larger and smaller grants. Importantly, NIA has been able to preserve our substantial R01 funding incentives for both early stage and new investigators:

Kobor: Are there new or continuing research initiatives you especially want behavioral scientists to know about?

Dr. Suzman: Despite the budget constraints, this is surely one of the most exciting times for behavioral research at NIA. For example, last year using ARRA stimulus funding, we were able to fund the genome-wide scan of the whole Health and Retirement Study (HRS) cohort -- a longitudinal national sample that started in 1991 with unparalleled cognitive data and increasingly significant and rich personality and psychosocial information supplemented with clinical and physiological data. The release of the genetic data later this year will yield unprecedented new opportunities to researchers in the behavioral and social sciences. Integrating genetics into behavioral research has been one of my long-term goals for the Division of Behavioral and Social Research (BSR), and I would invite readers to consult our website for summaries of a series of workshops and special issue journals on this topic that we have supported. We are also working on the tough problem of how best to integrate genetic information with behavioral measures and whether this will lead to the development of behavioral measures that are more tightly anchored to biological pathways. Some of our studies, such as the Mid Life in the U.S. (MIDUS) study are very rich in assessing biological pathways and increasingly we think of our multiple studies as part of a loosely integrated family of studies that need to be used conjointly. Quite how the introduction of genome-wide genetic data into social and behavioral models will change the models remains to be seen, but the results could very well be revolutionary.

BSR supports a large number of longitudinal lifecourse studies in this country and around the world and we are working on harmonizing some of the measurements and assessments. Since almost all of the data are rapidly made available to researchers, we may very well be approaching a golden age for secondary data analyses. I should also add that we are also trying to construct bridges between the lab and these field surveys, and also between experimental and observational studies.

The NIA website lists recent initiatives of interest to psychologists, including: Cognitive Interventions, Neuroeconomics of Aging, Social Neuroscience of Aging, Subjective Well-being, Behavioral Economics, Family and Interpersonal Relationships, etc. Our Division uses both RFAs and program announcements to signal our interest and stimulate grant-writing in areas that we consider high priority. In general, once RFAs, such as the current one on subjective wellbeing are over, our interest in receiving additional applications in the regular application process remains strong, and I encourage applicants to check with BSR staff to learn more, especially about evolving sub areas of special interest.

We recently funded several new research networks, including ones on decision neuroscience, cross-national data harmonization, lifespan outcomes of military service and measurement of biological risk in biosocial surveys that are bringing researchers together to develop these interdisciplinary and emerging fields.

As part of ARRA stimulus funding, BSR-led an NIH-AHRQ (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality) initiative, using behavioral economic approaches, to encourage uptake of clinical interventions that have previously been shown to be comparatively effective. BSR’s interests in behavioral economics continue as does our interest in integrating the disciplines of psychology and economics more effectively.

Kobor: Are there agency-wide or cross-cutting initiatives that you would encourage APA's scientists to apply for?

Dr. Suzman: FY 2010 and FY 2011 were possibly the two best years ever in terms of trans-NIH initiatives of interest to psychologists. Together with the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), NIA is co-leading the Common Fund—supported Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) initiative, which involves 16 other institutes and centers at NIH, and BSR is also interested in receiving relevant applications outside of the Common Fund competitions – the need to develop more effective and cost-efficient approaches to changing lifestyles must be considered a national priority.

NIA is also playing a leading role in numerous OppNet initiatives in basic behavioral and social science, including RFAs in areas related to mechanisms of behavior change and behavior maintenance, self-regulation, sleep, stress, and research on social environments and health. These specific RFAs are no longer active, but the groups behind them at NIH are still actively involved in programmatic development, so APA’s membership should be alert for the announcement of new opportunities in these areas. And, of course, we encourage individuals engaged in life course research to apply directly to the NIA through standard funding announcements.

Kobor: NIA has always been an important source of funding for psychological scientists. According to the NIH RePORT, NIA spent over $337 million on behavioral and social sciences research in FY 2008, and over $278 million (not counting stimulus funds) in FY 2009. Is NIA funding any areas of behavioral or psychological research that you think our readers would be surprised to know about?

Dr. Suzman: We have a growing portfolio in basic research in behavior genetics, decision neuroscience, social neuroscience, and behavioral economics, all with strong psychological focus. In addition, BSR is collaborating with the NIA’s Division of Neuroscience in the area of cognitive aging and on interventions to maintain cognitive health or remediate cognitive decline in normal aging. As noted above, psychology as a field has not generally been oriented to the use of large datasets and I think we should perhaps hold some workshop on the topic aimed at interested psychologists – but the richness and depth of the cognitive and psychosocial data that are accumulating is quite stunning, especially as the assessments become more “lab-like.” Many of these surveys begin at age 50, but an increasing number started in high school and some even in early childhood. An additional facet is that many of these studies are being replicated across the world – the HRS has well over 30 analogues in Europe, Asia and Latin America, while MIDUS is replicated in Japan. Cross national comparisons using some of these datasets recently found evidence to suggest that continuing to work may be good for cognitive functioning.

There are several evolving areas, such as the psychological mechanisms, through which influence is transmitted in social networks, the ability of older adults (especially those with low childhood levels of education) to profit from educational interventions in old age, the role of personality variables such as conscientiousness in economic behavior, bringing animal and human models of behavior closer together, developing new approaches to increasing transfer of training at older ages, etc. We are developing a portfolio on family and interpersonal relationships that includes research on the effects of various aspects of social relationships on health and health behaviors. We are also increasingly interested in application and translation of more basic research into everyday life. Indeed, our interest in improving measurement of subjective well-being (especially of the experiential aspect) is motivated by the potential for well-being becoming more of a tool in policy making. 
 
Kobor: Is there any specific advice you can offer to Psychological Science Agenda readers who are interested in support from NIA?

Dr. Suzman: Our interests in aging-relevant psychological research are broad and interdisciplinary, ranging from basic research on cognition, emotion and motivation and their changes over the life span, to research on economic decision making, health behavior change, social interaction and social relationships, driving, workplace productivity, and psychosocial stress. We encourage approaches that bridge disciplines: economics and psychology, psychology and genetics, neuroscience and social science, etc. Often the breakthroughs that lead to effective interventions arise when researchers get out of their own disciplinary silos and incorporate new and not-so-new ideas from other fields. We are always looking for highly novel and paradigm-breaking ideas. The single most important thing a prospective applicant should do, whether fresh out of graduate school or a senior investigator looking to enter aging research, is to contact our superb staff, including Lis Nielsen, Jonathan King, and Erica Spotts.