- Meddling in peer review?As US House votes to block mental health grants, some worry about precedent | By Ted Agres Scientists, officials, and professionalMessage 1 of 1 , Sep 16, 2004View Source
Meddling in peer review?
As US House votes to block mental health grants, some worry about precedent | By Ted Agres
Scientists, officials, and professional research societies are troubled by what they said might be a new trend in research grant appropriations by the US Congress: a vote to block continued funding of two peer-reviewed grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Members of the US House of Representatives last week (Sept. 9) approved an amendment to the NIH fiscal year 2005 budget (HR 5006) that would prohibit NIMH from further funding grants "studying the decorations of dorm rooms and college students' Web pages" and "studying what makes for a meaningful day," as Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.) characterized the grants last week.
The amendment is largely symbolic because the two grants already have been obligated. But advocates worried about the possible precedent. "It alarms us," said Steve Breckler, executive director for science at the American Psychological Association. "To have a member of Congress second guessing scientific judgment sends the message that Congress, and not the NIH peer review system, is the one that should be making decisions," he told The Scientist. "It's a dangerous road to go down."
"This would not cut out any funding from NIMH," Neugebauer said on the House floor. "It would simply focus research funding that is provided toward serious mental health issues and not interior decoration." But other Republican lawmakers opposed the amendment. "Studies have shown prevalence of depression and severe psychological problems among college students is growing," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.).
"I would not want to get our committee or this body in the position of trying to monitor or to be in the decision-making process on what grants are funded," argued Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies. But because the grants have already been issued, the amendment "does not have any impact," Regula said. "I am not going to object to the amendment." Neugebauer's amendment then passed by voice vote.
NIMH's grant to Laura A. King, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, was to study how college students perceive well-being and meaning in life, and how those affect physical and mental health. The grant to Samuel D. Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin, was to examine student motives and self-expression in decorating their living spaces and in constructing personal Internet pages.
"This should be a cause for concern for everyone who has any kind of federal funding," King said yesterday. "All of this research was subjected to intense peer review. The idea that members of Congress come in and disregard the peer review process and cherry-pick abstracts that they think are not important is really disturbing and a really horrible precedent," she told The Scientist.
This is the second time in as many years that members of Congress have attacked specific peer-reviewed NIH grants during budget debate on the House floor. Last year, Rep. Patrick Toomey (R-Penn.) unsuccessfully sought to defund several NIH grants investigating human sexual behavior. That amendment was defeated by only two votes, raising concerns over congressional interference in the peer review process and the politicization of science.
Last week, following Neugebauer's amendment and a series of additional amendments, the House approved the Labor/HHS Appropriations Bill, giving NIH $28.5 billion, a 2.6% increase of $727 million over the current year's funding. The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet today (Sept. 15) to draft its version of the NIH budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
Differences between the House and Senate versions, including the Neugebauer amendment, will need to be reconciled in a conference committee before the bill can be finalized and sent to President George W. Bush. It is at that point that science advocates hope to strike the amendment.
"We will certainly urge Congress to drop this from the final legislation when it goes to conference," said Barry Toiv, director of communications and public affairs for the Association of American Universities. "We strongly oppose any effort by Congress to undermine the peer review process."Links for this article
Laura A. King
Samuel D. Gosling
T. Agres, "Sex, drugs, and NIH," The Scientist, November 3, 2003.
T. Agres, "Politicizing research or responsible oversight?" The Scientist, July 14, 2003.
T. Agres, "Science, policy, and partisan politics," The Scientist, August 13, 2003.
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