Initial Rave Reviews for New NIMH Director

The series of short-term and acting directors lasted more than a decade, but the wait may have been worth it. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) finally got a new, permanent head in April, in the person of Harvard research psychiatrist Steven E. Hyman.

Hyman, 44, comes to NIMH from Harvard’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative, where he directed an interdisciplinary faculty group drawn from medicine, public health, business, law, religion, philosophy, and psychology. According to his psychologist colleagues, Hyman understands and appreciates behavioral research along with the full range of basic and clinical aspects of mental health research.

NIMH is a leading supporter of psychology research, with approximately $180 million going to psychologist principal investigators (PI) and much more to behavioral and social science more broadly. The past decade or so has been somewhat tumultuous, though, for NIMH, particularly for its behavioral and social science programs. Hyman’s arrival brings new hope of a more stable funding outlook for these areas.

“The respect for him is universal,” said Alan Kraut, executive director of APS. “And he has gone out of his way to be inclusive in his initial fact-finding about the Institute. Even before became on board officially, he was consulting with us and other groups about our views and concerns about the Institute.”

“I have a real sense that we are already in agreement about some ways to position behavioral scientists, particularly a new generation of behavioral scientists, to be on the cutting edge of NIMH research issues,” said Kraut.

Psychologist Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), was co-chair of the search committee that recommended Hyman. “The search committee recogn ized right away that Dr. Hyman was an ideal candidate,” said Leshner. “He’s a fine scientist and extremely broad in his perspective, and he laid out an impressive vision for NIMH that spanned the breadth of the field’s activities.”

Norman Anderson, a psychologist who heads the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR), was a member of the search committee and shares Leshner’s view. No single thing led to Hyman’s selection, according to Anderson, but “his overall vision for maintai ning and expanding the scientific excellence of NIMH research was critical.”

“He also had a good understanding of the many complex issues facing the Institute, including setting priorities in a steady-state budget, the needs of the intramural program, and trainingconcerns,” said Anderson.

Renaissance Man

The image of Hyman as a kind of scientific renaissance man is vivid in the comments of the APS members who worked with him in the Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative (MB2). APS Fellow Steven Kosslyn knows him through his experiences as a member of the steering committee for the Initiative and as a collaborator on a paper on different perspectives on intelligence.  “I have nothing but the best to say about Steve Hyman,” said Kosslyn. “I have gotten to know his intellectual style well- he is remarkably broad in his approach, and a very quick study.”

“He is also patient in drawing out ideas from others,” continued Kosslyn, who thinks that Hyman’s involvement with the Initiative has contributed to his appreciation of the value of different perspectives. Kosslyn described Hyman as “a very fair, honest, and reasonable person,” adding that “we are lucky to have him in his current position” at NIMH.

These sentiments are shared by APS Fellow Daniel Schacter, another MB2 participant. In commenting on the selection of Hyman  as NIMH director, Schacter said “Psychologists should be delighted that the NIMH has appointed a superb scientist with a broad view of mental health research.”

“I have been consistently amazed by the breadth of Steve’s perspective on central issues in neuroscience, psychology, and psychiatry,” said Schacter, predicting that Hyman “will appreciate and support the best that scientific psychology has to offer. His colleagues at Harvard will miss him, but the entire field of mental health will benefit from his appointment.”

A Busy Guy

In addition to running the MB’, Hyman also headed up a large and active research laboratory looking at the effects of drugs of abuse on the brain. This was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Hyman taught neurobiology at the Harvard Medical School, trained psychiatric residents at Massachusetts General Hospital (where they voted him “best teacher” for several consecutive years), and, with the residents, saw emergency patients one morning each week.

Hyman also has authored and edited several clinical books as well as many other scientific writings. (News of his appointment in the Washington Post was accompanied by a teasing observation that he is the author of such “hits” as “6-hydroxydopamine lesions of the substantia nigra upregulate CREB phosphorylation in rat striatum.” Hyman’s response? “They spelled a word wrong.”)

And, there’s more: Hyman has an extensive record of service to the scientific community, serving on review sections, editorial boards, and expert panels across a broad range of topics. Among other things, he is a member of an ad hoc committee of the Institute of Medicine that is looking at ways to attract new investigators to research on drug and alcohol addiction. And in his spare time, he’s a father of a five- and a three-year-old, with another on the way in June. (Hyman’s wife, Barbara Bierer, is a prominent NIH-funded researcher in her own right.)

Spare Time?

In addition to Hyman’s impressive scientific achievements, he is described as a hands-on contributor to whatever project he’s working on. “Enormous amounts of energy,” observes Kosslyn. Here are some of the other adjectives his colleagues use to describe Hyman: impressive, clear-headed, knowledgeable, creative, and remarkably good with people.

Charter Fellow J. Richard Hackman, also at MB’, sums it up this way: “Steve has shown in his work- both as a scientist and as a research administrator-a healthy disregard for traditional disciplinary boundaries and guild-based thinking. When he goes to work on an intellectual or social issue, he draws on contributions that range from molecular biology and genetics to sociology and cultural anthropology.”

“Moreover,” said Hackman, “he has exhibited a remarkable ability to get scientists from all disciplines-very much including psychology- working together on significant human problems.” Hackman and the others are confident that Hyman will bring these same qualities to the job of NIMH director.

Some Tough Times

So what will Hyman be facing in his new position? Sure, it’s a $600-million agency with 850 staff supporting some hot science. But NIMH has had some tough times. In the 1970s, the Institute’s budget was declining while other federal research institutes were increasing.

In the early 1980s, the Institute was targeted by a Reagan Administration dead set on banning social research. (NIMH’s response, by the way, was to say, “okay, you’re right, we’ll just narrow our mission,” which was pretty much what they wanted to do then anyway. It was a huge setback for psychology and other disciplines in terms of research momentum and in training.)

Current troubles started in 1992, when psychiatrist Fred Goodwin, the head of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration (ADAMHA) and staunch defender of animal research, was demoted to the job of NIMH Director after being forced to resign from ADAMHA because of controversy generated by remarks he made that were seen as racist by the public and several influential people in Congress.

Goodwin, who presided over NIMH’s move to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was the last permanent director of NIMH. From day one as director, he was steeped in controversy, and never able to shake it during his short one-year tenure, which, among other things, rendered him ineffective in dealing with Congress.

On either side of Goodwin, NIMH has had two outstanding acting directors: psychologist Alan Leshner, now head of NIDA, and psychiatrist Rex Cowdry, of the NIMH intramural program. But no matter how good an acting director is, any organization with a temporary leader ultimately suffers, particularly when the vacancy at the top becomes a permanent feature.

For NIMH, the situation was agonizingly prolonged by a stop-and-start search for a director, which three separate times reached the point where “short list” candidates were known and the official Washington-Area Gossip and Speculation (a.k.a. WAGS) network was calculating odds on who would be named.

Meanwhile, back at the Institute, dramatic policy decisions could not be made, important hiring decisions were deferred, a lot of things were basically on hold. Overlay this with the changes in Congress bringing in a seemingly less-sympathetic legislature, plus the general downsizing in the federal government, and you have a serious vulnerability problem. And that’s even before you get to the science and the fact that NIMH is dealing with issues that are stigmatized by much of society.

On the Defensive

During this period, it seemed like NIMH was on the defensive much of the time. One small example: Because of strong public objections, which no doubt capitalized on the Goodwin flap, the Institute was prevented from convening a conference on violence. In fact, during all of Goodwin’ s tenure, NIMH, the agency that should be most concerned with violence as a public health issue, was unable to touch the topic.

One big example: Last year NIMH was the target of a strident attack by a member of the subcommittee in the House of Representatives that determines the Institute’s annual budget (and that of NIH as a whole). Rep. Ernest Jim Istook (R-OK) took information fed to him by a coalition of groups that included the anti–psychiatry Scientologists, and attacked NIMH’s portfolio, singling out 30-plus grants, some of which were behavioral, as examples of government waste.

This was alarmingly reminiscent of the Reagan Administration attacks. Fortunately, NIMH responded differently this time. Under Cowdry’s leadership, NIMH mounted a strong defense of the targeted grants. NIH Director Harold Varmus also helped out by expressing the view that the attacks constituted an attack on all of science.

Ultimately, the attempt to pillory NIMH’s research backfired in a big way. The research was featured in a very positive light in a lengthy piece on Prime time Live. Investigative reporter Sam Donaldson said he started his inquiries assuming he would find the “mother-lode of government waste.” Instead, he said he came to appreciate the relevance and importance of the projects, and he ended up making a strong case for NIMH’s research.

During hearings on the NIMH budget this year, the chair of the House subcommittee called last year’s attacks on NIMH “mindless” and praised the Donaldson story, giving the strong impression that further attacks would not be acceptable. (See the article on APS congressional testimony on page 4 for more details.)

The problem has not quite gone away, however. NIMH’s portfolio is under attack still by some who want to narrow NIMH’s mission to focus only on schizophrenia and similar disorders. This effort is linked to a presumed hostile review of the awards in NIMH’s portfolio by the House subcommittee-reportedly undertaken with the help of organizations normally supportive of NIMH. At the same time, proposals have also been circulating for the creation of a “brain institute” at NIH by combining portions of NIMH with the neurology institute.

The idea doesn’t have much credence and has little chance of getting past the trial balloon stage, but the fact that such proposals are being made at all speaks to NIMH’ s continued vulnerability.

Home of Behavior

On another front, NIMH’s too-large intramural program is the subject of scrutiny by a blue ribbon committee of “outside” experts-in quotes because the committee is chaired by former NIMH director Herbert Pardes-which is expected to develop a plan for revamping the program. Hyman reportedly already told the committee he thinks that too much of the program’s research is “incremental,” and threatened the committee with replacement if they do not produce bold recommendations.

Hopefully, this will mean a broadening of the intramural program. However, there are other forces at work that might pressure for narrowing it and the rest of NIMH’ s portfolio in favor of biomedical research. Some are from outside forces, such as Congress or interest groups. Other pressure comes from within NIH. While APS’ s perspective is that NIMH is slanted toward biomedical research, the rest of NIH tends to refer to NIMH as the “behavioral” institute, driving the NIH wannabes at NIMH apoplectic. Whether Hyman feels comfortable with that behavioral image or will feel compelled to counter it remains to be seen.

“I’m not sure how Dr. Hyman will feel about that image,” said OBSSR’s Anderson. “I am personally ambivalent about it,” he added. “It is an acknowledgment of NIMH’s leadership role in behavioral science funding,” but it lets the other institutes off the hook by implying that NIMH is the ‘true’ home of behavioral science at NIH.”

Hyman’ s appointment “bodes well for behavioral and social science as a whole,” said Anderson, whose forecast is that  psychology will continue to be the top-funded discipline at NIMH” while “interdisciplinary research will gain in importance.” Even there, notes Anderson, “psychologists are heavily involved in development of models for that kind of research.” Some of Hyman’ s thoughts about psychology and interdisciplinary research are presented in the box below.

Observer Vol.9, No.3 May/June, 1996

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