Cover Story

Hitting the Bricks

Once housed primarily at the National Institute of Mental Health, some areas of basic behavioral science are being shown the door. Where will they end up?

Psychologists who conduct basic behavioral research are reeling from a structural reorganization and a new set of priorities at the National Institute of Mental Health. Under the new plan, which took effect last fall, NIMH is increasing its support for projects that translate basic research findings into interventions for people with mental and behavioral disorders, and substantially narrowing its basic behavioral enterprise. Research that links behavioral approaches to genetic or neuroscience methods is also receiving increased support.

NIMH is the largest federal supporter of basic behavioral science research. In 2003, about $400 million of the institute’s $1.3 billion budget was earmarked for all areas of basic research, including neuroscience; molecular, cellular, and genetic; and behavioral research. About $40 million was devoted to basic behavioral research.

As is the case throughout the National Institutes of Health, grant applications submitted to NIMH are evaluated by peer review committees, or study sections, which assign each grant a priority score. NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, a psychiatrist who took the reins at NIMH in 2002, said that NIMH will continue to fund all proposals whose priority scores rank in the top 12th percentile of grants reviewed within a given study section. However, he said, there will be reduced funding for grants in areas that are outside of the Institute’s new priorities. Insel said grants that score between the 12th and 20th percentile will go into the same pool, allowing the Institute greater flexibility in deciding what to support.

Many psychologists think the move means that much of the basic behavioral research traditionally funded at NIMH – including in social psychology, personality, learning and memory, and animal research – will founder. (Three new members of the National Academy of Sciences were supported by NIMH previously, but they wouldn’t be now. (See “What Wouldn’t Have Been”.)

“This is an absolutely devastating blow to the infrastructure of basic science,” said APS Fellow and Charter Member Daniel T. Gilbert, Harvard University. “That infrastructure is like a tree – you can chop it down in minutes and it will take decades to re-grow. In a few years you will see the complete withering of important areas of science, because young people aren’t going to go into areas where there isn’t money. I do think that in time, this leader or another will come to his or her senses, but it will be too late.”

Others have called the decision shortsighted, noting that basic research is the wellspring of effective diagnosis and intervention for mental illness.

“You can translate nothing if you don’t understand the basic mechanisms of our cognitive and behavioral systems,” argued APS Fellow and Charter Member Richard M. Shiffrin, Indiana University. “If you don’t have a good research base, you’re going to end up trying to translate old and stagnant research ideas into treatments that are very likely to fail.”

Many scientists complain that Insel has done little to assure that important basic behavioral research scuttled by NIMH finds a home elsewhere. Insel said that’s the wrong perspective. “We don’t really think about having money set aside for any particular discipline of science,” he said. “What we think about is where we are going to get the most important discoveries. For behavioral scientists to think that they’re entitled to a certain amount of the budget is inappropriate.”

APS Executive Director Alan G. Kraut acknowledged that NIMH is under financial pressure and that there is an urgent need to better understand mental illnesses. But, he said, “It is an abandonment of scientific leadership to simply cut out important and promising areas of research that can be applied to other NIH disorders. It is irresponsible to simply say, ‘We’re not doing that anymore,’ without making sure that this excellent research gets a safe landing somewhere.”

Insel insisted that basic behavioral research will still have a home at NIMH.

“The anxiety is that we’re trying to squash a field,” he said. “I would say that we’re trying to nudge the field and encourage it to become broader and much more mechanistic. What we’re hoping is that the best basic behavioral research will get more tied into biology and into the relevance of the public health challenge.”

But Barbara A. Wanchisen, executive director of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences in Washington, DC, is skeptical that a reorganized NIMH will continue to welcome basic behavioral research. Since last summer, she has been collecting data from behavioral scientists considering or preparing to submit grants to NIMH.

“They are not being told to ‘re-focus,’ but that NIMH is no longer interested in funding those areas,” Wanchisen said. “I think program officers are right in trying to be helpful in saying those things, but I call that ‘elimination.'”

Behavioral scientists aren’t the only ones upset by the reorganization. NIH officials who asked to remain anonymous said that morale is low at the Institute. Many on the program staff believe the basic behavioral research now being cast aside – a sliver of NIMH’s total basic research budget – is critical to addressing mental health issues. One official also suggested that by signaling that the Institute does not value basic behavioral science, Insel has unwittingly played into the hands of members of Congress who have attacked psychological research.

Insel said the reorganization was driven by tight budget constraints coupled with increasing public recognition of the societal burden of mental disorders. For disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, suicide, and autism, he said, reliable diagnostic tests, treatments, and prevention strategies are urgently needed.

In December 2003, NIMH convened a special advisory workgroup to review the Institute’s basic research portfolio. The workgroup’s final report, issued in May 2004, was greeted with cautious relief by many scientists, who viewed it as supportive of basic behavioral research even as it emphasized the need to devote greater attention to translational research. The report specified a number of areas of research that might be encouraged to more directly address mental illness, including research on learning and memory, sleep, circadian biology, stress, neurotransmitter-signaling systems, and prejudice and stereotyping.

However, said APS Fellow and Charter Member Peter Salovey, Yale University, who served on the advisory workgroup, “Our report certainly reaffirmed the importance of basic behavioral science and its place at NIMH.”

In September, NIMH announced plans for a formal reorganization of its extramural program (the part of the Institute that supports research conducted at universities and other sites through NIMH grants and fellowships). The program has been restructured to include five divisions, from the previous three. The Behavioral Sciences Research Branch, which was responsible for basic behavioral research at NIMH, has been eliminated and basic behavioral research has been divided among other divisions, including a re-shaped Division of Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science. Some basic behavioral science, including research on emotional regulation and on cognitive development, has also been assigned to two new divisions with primarily clinical portfolios.

APS Fellow Harold E. Pashler, University of California, San Diego, a member of the advisory workgroup, said that almost everyone on the panel agreed that “given the range of problems relevant to NIMH, and the demonstrated effectiveness of behavioral treatments in so many disorders, it would be silly to think we don’t need a continued emphasis on basic affective and cognitive processes.” He added that there was “near-unanimous agreement that the most illuminating studies of these kinds of questions are often purely behavioral. It would be short-sighted to prod behavioral researchers to include neural measures in their designs, since these are almost always quite expensive and sometimes not terribly helpful.”

But that’s precisely what many behavioral scientists fear has happened.

“There’s a belief in the Institute that a lot of the answers to the mysteries of mental disorders are going to be found in the brain and the genes,” observed APS President Robert W. Levenson, University of California, Berkeley. Levenson was part of an NIH-appointed working group that examined behavioral and social science research opportunities at every institute. “It’s undeniable that these are exciting areas where there is great potential for growth, but that work is always going to be grounded in the relationships that the brain and genes have with behavior. If you really are interested in having the talents of highly skilled basic researchers applied to the problems of the mentally ill, then the worst thing you could do is to decimate basic behavioral research.”

APS Fellow and Charter Member Richard J. Davidson, University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the changes reflect a growing understanding of the biological underpinnings of mental processes. Davidson chaired a subgroup of the advisory workgroup charged with evaluating basic behavioral and neuroscience research. Among workgroup members, he said, “There was clear recognition that … it is no longer responsible for behavioral scientists to do research as though the brain did not exist.”

Although researchers commend the efforts of NIMH’s program officers, who they say have gone to great lengths to help them understand and navigate the new structure, many say that the process has bred uncertainty and suspicion. Some complain that NIMH documents announcing the reorganization are at odds with what researchers have been told by program officers and other NIH insiders.

“There is this huge discrepancy between what people know is happening and what people think is happening,” Levenson said. “Without concrete information about the specifics, rumors are rampant and science that could be of great use in the alleviation of mental illness may be stillborn.”

Molly Oliveri, deputy director of NIMH’s new Division of Pediatric Translational Research and Treatment Development (and formerly chief of the Behavioral Science Research Branch), acknowledged that the Institute’s public statements on the reorganization have fostered confusion. The message the institute wants to communicate, she said, is that “basic behavioral science research is not going to be automatically turned away. But investigators do need to do a serious job of thinking about why they’re coming to NIMH for funding and make a compelling rationale that the program staff can use to justify the funding.” She urged psychologists to work closely with program staff who will help them tune their grants to NIMH’s new priorities, if possible, or identify other potential funders.

Some scientists criticize the reorganization’s stated premise – that NIMH’s mission is to reduce the burden of mental and behavioral disorders. According to NIMH’s Congressional charter, last authorized in 1992, the Institute’s mission includes “the promotion of mental health, and the study of the psychological, social and legal factors that influence behavior.”

But Insel said the authorization language will soon be revised. “I’ve gotten the message [from Congress] about as clearly as I can get it that the NIMH needs to be a disease-specific institute,” he said. When he speaks with Congressional staffers, Insel said, “The questions are always very focused on what we’re doing for people who have a particular disease. I’ve never received a question about what we’re doing for basic research.”

Insel has argued that some basic behavioral research traditionally funded by NIMH more closely matches the missions of other institutes, such as the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development, and others. Indeed, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni established a committee to examine NIH support for basic behavioral science. A draft of that group’s report is available online at (See “NIH Advisory Panel Calls for Stable Home for Basic Behavioral Science”.)

Many behavioral scientists acknowledge that over the years, NIMH has funded some basic behavioral research that might better be supported by other institutes. One institute that Kraut has argued should be funding much more basic behavioral research is the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Although that Institute’s Congressional charter mandates that it should support basic behavioral science, the NIGMS portfolio does not currently include any behavioral grants.

“The research community needs to draw attention to the fact that some parts of the NIH are, given their stated missions, not adequately supporting behavioral research,” said Pashler. Shiffrin agreed, but said “the net effect [of NIMH’s new structure] is going to be to cut basic research.”

One scientist whose grant did not renew last year was Wendy Wood, Duke University, who contacted a program officer concerning a renewal of an NIMH-funded grant on habitual behavior and self-regulation. She was told that her research was of minimal interest to NIMH and that the Institute was now “funding primarily work with clinical populations, and that college populations are not of interest.”

Another topic slated for “re-focusing” under the reorganization is research in stereotyping and prejudice, an area that has traditionally found its primary home at NIMH. Insel said NIMH remains interested in the stigma surrounding mental illness, but that the workgroup didn’t view research on stereotyping and prejudice as an area that is “currently highly innovative, or where there was a lot of traction for new discoveries.” A number of researchers have reported being told categorically that NIMH is no longer interested in research on stereotyping and prejudice unless it specifically involves clinical populations or attitudes toward the mentally ill.

APS Fellow and Charter Member Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard University social psychologist whose research examines subtle forms of bias toward social groups, disagreed that research in that area lacks innovation, and argued that research on stereotyping and prejudice is at the core of efforts to relieve the social burden posed by mental illness. “To remove research on this topic from NIMH’s mandate is to do a disservice to those with mental illness,” she said.

The reorganization may have especially strong repercussions for young investigators, for whom there are fewer alternative avenues of funding. Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, a first-year professor of social psychology at Yale University, submitted her first NIMH grant proposal in January 2005. In light of the Institute’s new priorities, she said she emphasized an aspect of her research that focuses on connections between race, crime, and mental health – an area in which she has “dabbled” in the past.

“I am ambivalent about the reorganization,” Purdie-Vaughns said. “To the extent that it pushes us to make our research more relevant to mental health, I think it’s a positive thing. But I also think it’s disheartening if NIMH is saying that the research [social psychologists] have done in the past has been irrelevant to mental health.” Although wary, Purdie-Vaughns remains optimistic that a diverse set of basic behavioral questions can still find a home at NIMH. “I have to be hopeful because I’m new, and I hope to have a long career ahead of me,” she said. “I have to be hopeful – there’s nothing else that I can do.”

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