Leadership Gap at Key NIH Institutes

The long-time directors of three federal research institutes which support a significant amount of behavioral science have resigned within weeks of one another, leaving a leadership gap in behavioral science at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Alan I. Leshner, an APS Fellow and Charter Member who served as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for the past seven years, left the institute at the beginning of December to become chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He was the first psychologist to head an NIH institute, and he revolutionized the nation’s research enterprise on drug abuse and addiction. As part of that, he dramatically broadened NIDA’s behavioral science research and training portfolios to include new perspectives on such fundamental behavioral processes as craving and learning and memory. Leshner was also responsible for launching B/START training programs at NIDA and at the National Institute of Mental Health, where he served as acting director before coming to NIDA.

At about the same time, Steven E. Hyman left his post as director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to become provost at Harvard University. Hyman, a psychiatrist who prior to coming to Washington five and a half years ago was head of Harvard’s mind-brain-behavior research program, was a strong supporter of psychological science whose behavioral science priorities included connecting basic and clinical research, most notably translational research, and interdisciplinary training. APS Fellow Richard Nakamura, deputy director of NIMH, will serve as acting director until a replacement is found.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) lost its director of 15 years at the end of December. Enoch Gordis, who was a professor at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and who founded the alcohol program at the Elmhurst Hospital in Elmhurst, New York, before coming to NIAAA, opened a dialogue with APS over the years that led to an expanded behavioral science research portfolio at the institute. Approximately one-third of the institute’s budget goes to research by psychologists. Gordis, 71, is retiring.

The combined budgets of these three agencies for FY 2002 will be more than $2.5 billion, a substantial portion of which is devoted to research supported by psychological scientists.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT?

What will be the impact of these leadership vacancies at the three institutes? It depends on how quickly they are replaced, and the behavioral science track record of their replacements.

“All three of the departing institute directors – Alan Leshner, Steve Hyman and Enoch Gordis – have been steadfast in their support of behavioral science research,” said APS Executive Director Alan Kraut. “You might have expected that from Alan Leshner, since he was trained as a behavioral scientist, but, in fact, each of the three has shown great leadership in expanding the behavioral science portfolios of their institutes, and they each can point to a stronger behavioral science enterprise as their legacy in very specific ways – new priorities, new training programs, new centers, and more.”

“Whenever there’s a search for a new institute director,” added Kraut, “the challenge for us is to ensure that the criteria for selection include a record of support for our research and a recognition of the importance of behavior in health. It will be a particular challenge here, since all three have set the bar so high.”

“More generally, I do see the departure of these three plus several other institute directors as a sign that NIH is experiencing a leadership drain that may make it more vulnerable to non-scientific pressures in terms of its priorities and future directions,” Kraut said.

Among other things, these vacancies have fueled the perennial speculation about the possible merger of NIDA and NIAAA into an institute on substance abuse, or even some combination of the three into a single brain and behavior institute along with the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), another NIH institute that has been without a director for around a year, and one that also supports a great deal of psychological science.

Observer Vol.15, No.1 January, 2002

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