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       September 30, 2004

      NIMH shifts research priorities

      Scientists fear curtailed funding for basic social and behavioral research | By Ted Agres


      Psychologists funded by the US government, already wary of congressional meddling in peer-reviewed federal research grants, say they are now concerned that the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), their primary source of federal support, is curtailing funding for social and behavioral sciences, areas traditionally considered integral to basic research in the field.

      Under a strategic reorganization plan that takes effect tomorrow (October 1), NIMH, one of the 27 institutes and centers of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will shift research funding to areas deemed to have the most relevance to public health issues, such as neurological diseases and major mental disorders. "We have a mission from Congress to focus on mental health," NIMH Director Thomas Insel told The Scientist. "There are areas we are trying to redirect, areas we need to look at more closely."

      Officials at professional research societies say that starting about 6 months ago, NIMH began rejecting far more grant applications from behavioral and social scientists than ever before. "They would get a note saying, 'Sorry, this is no longer relevant to the mission of NIMH,'" said Steve Breckler, executive director for science at the American Psychological Association. "It's causing alarm bells to go off."

      "I'm hearing from a lot of scientists who have been affected by this," said Barbara Wanchisen, executive director of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences. "It's pretty clear that unless the research has some kind of neuroscience or physiological bent to it, it's probably not going to be heavily favored for funding."

      But Insel denied any bias against basic behavioral, social science, or anthropological research. "We feel a need for the best cognitive science and the best behavioral science to address the public health issues in front of us, which is mental illness," he said. "But if we already have had 10 people doing some work, we would want to save that money for an area where we don't have anything yet."

      Part of the problem, Insel said, is that some research psychologists have come to expect their grants to be renewed or extended multiple times. "There is often a sense in the academic community that they think of NIMH as a source of support, whereas we look at the academic community as a source of answers," he said. "We are looking for areas where people can complete a study and go on´┐Żnot just add a brick to the wall, but start a new wall and finish it."

      NIMH is the government's largest funding agency for mental health research, supporting more than 3000 research project grants with a $1.4 billion budget for fiscal year 2004. But after 5 years of major budget increases, NIMH is now facing fiscal constraints: higher grant costs, smaller budget increases, and a larger pool of grant applicants.

      To address these issues, Insel last year assembled a 23-member advisory committee to review research priorities. The committee's report, issued in May, recommended giving highest funding priority to "understanding the potential causes, treatment, and prevention of mental illness and behavioral disorder." Grants having greater relevance to translational research should take precedence over those that focus on "well established phenomena, paradigms, and methods," the report states.

      NIMH grants must now demonstrate "relevance, traction, and innovation," Insel said, meaning that they should make practical contributions to mental health in new ways, and do so expeditiously. Because of this change, some psychologists complain, proposals in areas that NIMH had previously funded are now being sent back unreviewed. Others have been advised to submit their proposals to other NIH institutes or even to the National Science Foundation, the government's next-largest funder of social science and behavioral re

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