NSF Opens a Door

Approximately 900 Graduate and Minority Graduate Fellowships were announced in March by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This year, a small but significant change in the eligibility guidelines gave a handful of students potential access to funding that was once off limits.

“Until 1996, under the main heading of psychology, there was a parenthetical comment that said that clinical psychology was not eligible for support. This year, we simply took out that parenthetical comment,” said Susan Duby, program director for NSF’s graduate research fellowships, who explained that while NSF’s policy remains that it will not fund clinical research, students from clinical programs will not necessarily be disqualified. “We made it easier for students who are legitimately doing non-clinical work, but who are enrolled in clinical psychology programs, to apply.”

The NSF “clinical” prohibition applied to students in clinical programs, even if they were doing purely basic research. The fellowship program has funded graduate students expected to contribute to research, teaching and industrial applications in science, mathematics and engineering since 1952. This year, 44 Graduate and 11 Minority Graduate Fellowships were awarded to students across the discipline of psychology. (See box, page 17) About 90 more psychology students received Honorable Mentions.

NSF eliminated the simple but significant “clinical prohibition” language in part due to the efforts last year by APS and its executive director, Alan Kraut, who said that the change strengthens the view that there is a science of clinical psychology that includes basic research. (See July/August 1995APS Observer)

“NSF should not be in the business of clinical science but clinical science has a basic side that ought to be supported and encouraged by NSF,” said Kraut. “The happy ending here is that NSF realizes it too.”

The change does not signal a move away from NSF’s basic mission of supporting programs of basic research, but it does allow for applications from students enrolled in clinical psychology programs to be evaluated on the basis of substance, rather than automatically being rejected due to any clinical reference. The old policy was partly designed to prevent overlap in research portfolios of NSF and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But NSF’s old policy required an inappropriately rigid interpretation of “clinical.”

Psychologists across the field have applauded the decision. APS Fellow Emanuel Donchin, who headed up the department of psychology at the University of Illinois for almost 20 years, said he was happy about the change and pleased the NSF would look closer at applications in terms of content, rather than bar automatically and blindly anything clinical. He gave an example, using another NSF program, of the kind of frustration researchers have encountered.

“I encountered it several years ago when one of our non-clinical faculty, a psychopharmacologist, who is among the leading investigators of the dopamine system, was recommended for a Presidential Young Investigator award, a program administered by NSF,” said Donchin. “NSF withdrew his proposal from the competition because in the introduction, he said that the results might have a bearing on the understanding of the pharmacology of schizophrenia. This, according to NSF, made his proposal ‘clinical,’ which automatically disqualified it from NSF support.”

Charles Nelson of the University of Minnesota, concurred that the change in policy would mean that applications would be judged on the quality of the applicant’s basic research program regardless of the program in which the student is enrolled. Two students from the University of Minnesota’s clinical program were among the 44 who received fellowships

“I think that the concern about training people in clinical areas-that is, to train clinicians-was warranted, given the Foundation’s goals,” he said. “That is, it was not the mission of NSF to train people to work in clinical areas the way it might be for NIH or its National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). This sort of acknowledges the reality that people in the very good clinical programs in this country are doing work that is every bit as fundamental and basic as people in non-clinical programs. They should view research on the merits of the research and not be encumbered by the program.”

Cannon Thomas, a clinical student at Northwestern University, understands and appreciates the significance of the change in NSF’s policy. He was awarded an NSF fellowship for this basic research which would not have been deemed appropriate if the NSF policy had remained in place. Thomas’s research focuses on how negative emotional states affect cognition. “The background of my research is more social psychological and cognitive and drew off of a lot of that in terms of what I was doing with emotional disorders,” he said.

Duby says that the line between basic research in clinical science and clinical research is very thin. “Any application that says clinical psychology is going to receive a special review of eligibility because we have to be very careful in the screening,” she said. “[Since the change in policy] I believe I saw more applications that openly said clinical than I had in the past, and that was predictable. I think I also saw more applications from students who were enrolled in clinical programs but who were doing non-clinical work. There were still a number-not a huge number-but a number of people who thought that we had changed and that all of clinical psychology was eligible. They were very clearly doing clinical research that we would not support, and they were ruled ineligible.”

(In addition to the task of interpreting the change in eligibility requirements, NSF staffers and reviewers were stymied by the month-long shutdown that paralyzed most of the federal government. Despite the hurdles and thanks to the hard work of the staff, Duby was able to announce the 1996 Graduate Research Fellowships on the same day as they were announced last year.)

Thomas says he was elated when he found out he was awarded a fellowship. “I do think that [the change] shows a level of respect for basic clinical research,” he said. “Where that has been seen as a marginalized field because of its connection with a professional career, more and more clinical research has focused on basic processes and drawn off of and been integrated with cognitive and social and biological psychology. This seems to me to be sort of a recognition of that integration.”

Thomas is a student of APS Fellow Susan Mineka, a Northwestern University professor who said she is pleased that students from clinical programs are now privy to such a great opportunity.

“Even if [the policy change] applies to a subset of clinical students- which is all it will ever apply to-I still think it is incredible,” she said. “It is a very prestigious fellowship and clinical students are very, very good.”

She added that the successes of clinical students in this year’s fellowship program have broader implications for university research programs. “From our standpoint, it means that we can fund more students if students are paying their own way and we don’t have to use university money to pay for them,” she said. Thomas agreed and added that the fellowship “opens up our program to invite an extra student because we have more financing, which strengthens our program as a whole.”

While significant, the change in wording will affect, at best, a core of20 to 40 institutions that train clinical researchers focusing on the basic side of clinical science, said Kraut. Nonetheless, psychologists across the field have applauded the decision.

APS Charter Fellow Irving Gottesman, of the University of Virginia, said the policy change was important in changing misperceptions, within the public and the scientific community, in the characterization of clinical psychology.

“Psychology must be understood to be both a social science and a natura) science, in effect occupying a spectrum that interfaces both with, say, sociology and neuroscience,” he said. “Up to this change in policy … c1inical psychology was misperceivedas being essentially some kind of applied social science. A large amount of interest, however, is dedicated to the neuroscience side.”

As the fIrst class of NSF graduate fellows from clinical programs embarks on their basic research endeavors, many in the scientific community are looking towards what NSF’s change in policy will mean over time.

“My bet is that this change is going to make NSF even stronger in supporting the best of psychological science,” said Kraut. ”The change properly amplifies the NSF mission that all excellent basic science is welcome there.”

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

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