A Congress to Remember: Behavioral Science Fares Well Despite Attacks

It was the best of sessions, it was the worst of sessions. The 104th Congress is in the Record books, memorable mainly for its revolutionary aspirations and the many government shutdowns over the federal budget. But behavioral scientists will remember the l04th as a Tale of Two Congresses. It was a Congress in which we saw blistering attacks on research, some of which was our research. Fortunately, we also saw those attacks successfully repelled by the National Institutes of Health (NTH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), aided by the scientific community at large.

Although the attacks were reminiscent of similar events in the early 1980s, the outcomes were very different. Back then, they resulted in deep cuts in funding for behavioral and social science. This time, the attacks were not successful, primarily because the agencies were willing and able to defend their behavioral and social science missions.

At NIH, specific research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) had been targeted for elimination by some members of Congress at the urging of several anti-research groups. The controversy became the subject of a lengthy television network news report, which, thanks to the efforts of NIMH leaders (and, of course, the intrinsic value of the research), ended up becoming a showcase for explaining behavioral science to the nation. And, at NSF, the impact of the attacks-compared to the 1980s- was attenuated significantly. Changes in NSF’s leadership structure-specifically, the presence of an assistant director for behavioral science (a position that did not exist in the 1980s) and a deputy director who was a psychologist- made the difference this time. NSF resisted attempts by the chair of the House Science Committee to eliminate the Foundation’s behavioral and social science directorate.

‘Tis a Far Better Thing

These tribulations aside, the l04th Congress really did represent the best of sessions for behavioral science. Science received strong support generally, and behavioral science in particular did very well.

Last year, Congress appropriated a 5.9 percent increase to NIH as a whole. This year it was a 6.5 percent boost (6.9 percent if you count $90 million for NIH Clinical Center construction), bringing the NIH budget to $12.7 billion. Along with this generous treatment, Congress sent a series of strong messages to NIH proposing new directions for expanding and strengthening its behavioral science portfolio. Training received the most attention, but a range of topics was addressed, including SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), drug and alcohol research, psychopathology, research on the brain and behavior, clinical experiences for basic behavioral researchers, and aging.

As always, the congressional budget was accompanied by explanatory reports that the House and Senate appropriations committees write each year to amplify their views on NIH spending. In any year, being included in these reports is no small feat, given the enormous competition from specific causes clamoring for inclusion. But this recognition is even more important than in previous years because of the ongoing budget deficit debate, which, at least publicly, was dominated by a cadre of legislators focused on very near-term budget cutting, either for fiscal or ideological reasons.

The House appropriations reports for NIH and behavioral science were featured in the July/August 1996 Observer. Many of the same issues were addressed in the Senate version, described below. The verbatim text from the Senate report accompanies this article on the next page.

Don’t Worry … B/START

Both sides of Congress strongly encouraged the use of B/ST ART (Behavioral Science Track Awards for Rapid Transition) grants to ensure a supply of young behavioral science investigators at the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute on Aging (NIA), and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). In addition, they asked the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) to work with all institutes to develop small grants programs for young behavioral science investigators. B/START grew out of concerns about the “greying” of the field, as indicated by the documented decline in support for young investigators at the NIMH, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), and elsewhere. In an NIMH/APS collaboration, NIMH launched the firSt B/ST ART program in 1994. More recently, NIDA announced its own B/START program, an event marked this year by the Senate. (See NIDA B/START article on page 4.)

“The Committee is pleased to see that NIDA has initiated this program, which invites newly independent investigators to submit applications for small-scale pilot research projects related to the behavioral science mission,” noted the Senate report. This latest round of congressional encouragement is prompting other institutes to look closely at establishing similar programs.

Teach Your Children

Both the House and Senate asked about NIH’s plans to implement the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for the National Research Service Awards (NRSA). Those recommendations were to increase the number of awards in behavioral science (as well as nursing, health services, and oral health research) while keeping level the number of biomedical science awards. Noting that NIH has not implemented the NAS recommendations, Congress has asked the NIH Director to report back with a plan and timetable to do so.

Drug Abuse Research

In addition to the favorable review for NIDA’s B/START program (above), the House and Senate underscored the primacy of behavioral interventions in the treatment of drug abuse-for some drugs, such interventions are the only treatments available and strongly commended NIDA’s support for basic and clinical behavioral research “aimed at better identifying those at risk for drug abuse and developing effective approaches for breaking the cycle of addiction.” NIDA’s behavioral therapies development program was singled out for special recognition. Congress also encouraged NIDA’s continued research in HIV/AIDS, noting the role of drug use and related behaviors in the spread of HIV.

NIMH Research Plans

Both the House and Senate said they were “pleased” to learn about the Human Capital Initiative (HCI) report on psychopathology research, and asked NIMH to report to Congress on plans for using the report, Reducing Mental Disorders: A Behavioral Science Research Plan for Psychopathology, in next year’s appropriations hearings.

The HCI is a national behavioral science research agenda begun under the auspices of APS by representatives of more than 70 behavioral and social science organizations. (See Guest Contributor Milton Hakel’s Presidential Column on page 2 of this issue of the Observer.) The HCI describes the current state of knowledge in various areas and identifies the most promising areas of need for behavioral research in those areas. It is intended to guide NIH programs and Congress in establishing research priorities. In addition to the report on psychopathology research, HCI reports have been developed in a number of areas, including aging (see the section on NIA, below), productivity, and health and behavior. Further information and copies of the HCI reports are available from APS.

The Senate also reiterated its support for an NIMH-sponsored report, Basic Behavioral Science Research for Mental Health: A National Investment, and expressed support “in particular … for the recommendations to fund more investigator-initiated behavioral research, provide new funding mechanisms for longitudinal behavioral research, and expand study sections for the best possible review of behavioral science.” The basic behavioral science report is similar to the institute’s plans in neuroscience, schizophrenia, child mental health, and other areas. It has been encouraged in several previous appropriations reports in both the House and Senate and was circulated to the entire Congress by appropriations leaders in both houses.

Clinical Experience

Congress also encouraged stronger links between basic and clinical research by urging NIMH to “build a generation of basic behavioral researchers who [is] sensitive to clinical issues.”

Suggested mechanisms included participation by nonclinical behavioral science graduate students on NIMH grants in medical settings, and supporting clinical psychology student research in severe mental disorders.

Alcohol Treatment Matching

NIAAA has undertaken a large patient-treatment initiative, Project MATCH, which has enormous implications for the effectiveness of behavioral therapies aimed at alcohol abuse. Both the House and Senate expressed interest in this project and requested a report on the results. They also encouraged NIAAA to establish a B/START program.

SIDS Success

The Senate Committee applauded NICHD’s “Back to Sleep” campaign (telling parents to put babies to sleep on their backs) for reducing the number of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) deaths. Further, the Senate pointed out that the campaign illustrated “the value of behavioral and social research: meta-analyses of SIDS studies revealed the role of sleeping position in infant deaths; the concept of changing parents ‘ behavior toward their babies and changing what pediatricians tell parents is based on the social psychology of attitude change research and persuasive communication; and the intervention itself—changing sleeping position- is a behavioral one.”

Heady Research

Congress applauded the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) for supporting research on the role of behavior in diseases and injuries of the brain. The Senate Committee elaborated on this point, saying that such research is central to the Institute’s mission and that “while .. .impressed by the advances that have been achieved in brain imaging technology, … similar advances must be achieved in behavioral research in order to reduce the devastating public health toll taken by brain injuries and disorders.” The May/June 1996 Observer detailed NINDS’s support for behavioral research, which prompted the congressional notice.

Vitality for Life

Both the House and Senate encouraged NIA to use B/START to train younger behavioral science researchers. In addition, the Senate commended NIA for supporting applied gerontology centers “where research critical to the functional independence of our elderly citizens is being conducted, as recommended in the NIA [HCI] report, Vitality for Life.” This report, which has received attention several times in appropriations reports, is part of the Human Capital Initiative series of behavioral science agendas in various areas. (Copies of Vitality for Life and all other HCI reports are available from APS.)

Behavioral Science at CDC

The House and Senate appropriators also commended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for its expanded behavioral science program. They expressed the view that these are important parts of the CDC mission and asked for a status report on CDC’s efforts in these areas.

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