Senators Support Behavioral Research at NIGMS

For several years, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences has ignored Congressional requests to include basic behavioral research in their portfolio. Many of these requests came in the form of appropriations report language, and cited the public law that required NIGMS to conduct such research.

When NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences was created in 1962, Congress specifically mandated the institute to support basic behavioral science. Forty years later, the Institute commits no funds to such research.

For the past several years, in a recurring scenario reminiscent of the movie "Groundhog Day," in which the main character keeps reliving events, APS has raised this issue with Congress, Congress has asked NIGMS to establish a program in behavioral science research and training, and NIGMS has ignored Congress.

We're pleased to report that the scenario has changed, and that the Senate's leading supporters of NIH are vowing to work together to see that basic behavioral research is supported by NIGMS.

As Congress debated NIH's FY 04 budget, Senators Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI), Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Tom Harkin (D-IA) engaged in a planned, formal discussion known as a colloquy, designed to highlight the issue.

This colloquy, which is included in the September 10, 2003 Congressional Record, takes place in the context of FY 04 being the first fiscal year to follow five years of double digit increases in the budget of NIH, which resulted in the budget being nearly doubled. The budget for NIGMS stands at $1.86 billion for FY 03, and this will only increase when Congress finishes work on the budget for FY 04.

Repeatedly, Congress has requested that NIGMS take up basic behavioral research and training as part of its portfolio, and repeatedly the institute has dismissed these requests. Both the Senate and House have used appropriations report language and other means to instruct NIGMS to hold true to its mission, to no avail. The colloquy between Senators Inouye, Specter, and Harkin notes this, as Senator Inouye referred to this issue as "largely unresolved."

Inouye, a long time supporter of NIH and behavioral research, initiated the exchange. He has a long history of being a champion of improving public health during his five decades in the Senate. As he notes in the colloquy, he is disturbed by the fact that this seemingly endless cycle between NIGMS and Congress remains unresolved. Citing the importance of behavior in health, Specter, chair of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH funding, noted that Congressional efforts to double the NIH budget demonstrate a commitment to all types of health research, including behavior. Since it was September 10th, Specter took the opportunity to note the importance of behavior and psychology, relating it to the impact of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He called for a better understanding of the psychological effects of sustained stress, as well as the role behavioral sciences can play in the prevention and treatment of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity, such as violence, tobacco use, and dietary behavior. Senator Harkin, the ranking Democrat on the NIH subcommittee, also is a staunch supporter of NIH. He also commented on the critical significance behavioral research plays in our nation, adding that their research has never been more important.

Past Resistance

As Congress debated the FY 04 budget for the NIH this spring and fall, APS once again made it a priority to alert Congress to the absence of behavioral science at NIGMS, known informally as NIH's "basic research institute." This is an institute that is mandated to support basic behavioral science among other areas, and possesses a budget of over $1.8 billion. For the past five years, the US Senate has included in their appropriations report language an express desire to see NIGMS remedy this shortcoming; the House has also repeatedly expressed interest in this issue. Yet NIGMS has dismissed Congress' assessment. In its document justifying its 2003 budget request, NIGMS stated the following:

"The Institute's research training programs mirror the areas of science that fall within the mission of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Except for a few fields of inquiry, behavioral studies largely fall outside of the Institute's research mission, and are instead deemed to be within the missions of other institutes at the National Institutes of Health.

"The National Institute of Mental Health, as well as a number of others with missions focused on diseases, support both basic behavioral research and behavioral research in humans, since many disease states have behavioral dimensions."

When asked to explain by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Judith Greenberg, the Institute's acting director, similarly wrote that:

"Except for a few fields of inquiry, behavioral studies largely fall outside of the Institute's research mission, and are instead deemed to be within the missions of other institutes at the National Institutes of Health, such as the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and others."

Senator Inouye was not convinced. Responding to Greenberg, Inouye, referring to the section of the institute's authorizing statute that mandated NIGMS to study sciences that have implications for two or more institutes, wrote back: "There is a multitude of basic research in behavior that falls under your charter that would benefit from your support." Basic research in behavior is critical to the well being of the nation and contributes to better health and welfare on the same level as basic research in biology and biochemistry." The Senator's letter goes on to cite cognitive processing, behavioral genetics, and research on stress and allostatic load as ripe areas for the NIGMS portfolio.

Members of the House of Representatives have also taken a leadership role on this issue. Representatives Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) and Brian Baird (D-WA) himself a psychologist, have aggressively pursued NIGMS and their lack of interest in behavioral research, as well as their lack of interest in taking heed in what Congress has to say. The pair strongly supports a proposed plan for NIH to examine basic behavioral science at all institutes. However, the Representatives have bluntly informed NIH that this cannot be a substitute for establishing a program in basic behavioral research and training at NIGMS. Look for updates on this issue in the Observer and on the APS Web site.