NIH Advisory Panel Calls for Stable Home for Basic Behavioral Science

In a highly anticipated report to the director of the National Institutes of Health, a panel of leading behavioral and social science researchers, including two APS Presidents, has recommended that NIH establish a secure and stable home for the most basic of NIH’s behavioral science research and training. Their recommendation comes on the heels of a move by the National Institute of Mental Health to discontinue funding some areas of basic behavioral science.

On December 2, after nine months of reviewing the existing portfolio of basic behavioral research across NIH’s 27 institutes and centers, the NIH Working Group on Research Opportunities in the Basic Behavioral and Social Sciences presented its findings to the Advisory Committee to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, responding to his request to examine basic behavioral and social sciences across NIH.

The Working Group included APS President Robert Levenson, University of California, Berkeley, and Past President Susan Fiske, Princeton University, as well as APS Fellows Richard Davidson, University of Wisconsin, Madison; William Greenough, University of Illinois; James Jackson, University of Michigan; and Laura Carstensen, Stanford University.

In calling for a stable home for basic behavioral science research at NIH, the Working Group recommended that the best candidate would be the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, or NIGMS, the $1.9 billion Institute that is NIH’s basic research arm. This Institute does not currently support behavioral science research, despite continued urging by Congress and APS and despite NIGMS’s own statutory mandate.

In examining the portfolios of disease-specific or life-stage specific institutes – such as the National Institute on Aging, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Cancer Institute, National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute, and NIMH – the Working Group found that there is support for basic behavioral and social science research in each. However, the bulk of such research traditionally has been supported by NIMH. The group noted that the recent changes in funding priorities in NIMH illustrate the vulnerability of this research.

Specific Recommendations
In addition to its main recommendation to establish basic behavioral science research and training at an institute like NIGMS, the Working Group also recommended that those institutes currently supporting basic behavioral and social science research continue their more mission-oriented basic work. The panel also called on NIH’s Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research to work with these other institutes to develop research priorities and initiatives, transfer funds, and maintain continual portfolio review. The specific recommendations are as follows:

Recommendation 1: “A secure and stable home should be established at NIH that can serve to foster basic behavioral and social sciences research that is not closely linked to the missions of the categorical institutes and centers. This will require both staff with appropriate expertise in the behavioral and social sciences and budget sufficient for the task.”

Recommendation 2: “The basic behavioral and social science research programs that are currently functioning well within [institutes] should continue in their present form. Efforts should be made to encourage basic behavioral and social science researchers whose research is applicable to specific diseases, conditions, or developmental periods to seek support from the relevant [institutes].”

APS interest in seeing NIGMS support basic behavioral science research and training goes back many years, beginning with public testimony in early 1998. It stems from the core finding that in any picture of health, behavior is central to many – maybe to most – of our nation’s leading health concerns: heart disease; stroke; lung disease; obesity; AIDS; suicide; teen pregnancy; drug abuse; depression; neurological disorders; alcoholism; violence; accidents. In studying these areas, behavior is a critical, if not the critical, factor. But beyond even these separate health concerns, basic behavioral processes underlying them need to be addressed. This should take place at NIGMS.

Congressional Interest
Support for a behavioral perspective at NIGMS has been encouraged by both the House and Senate not only this fiscal year, but also in NIH appropriations reports for FY2000, FY2001, FY2002, and FY2003. For instance, the FY2004 Senate appropriations report read “The Committee believes that NIGMS has a scientific mandate to support basic behavioral research because of the clear relevance of fundamental behavioral factors to a variety of diseases and health conditions. The Committee encourages the NIGMS to incorporate basic behavioral research as part of its portfolio, especially in the areas of cognition, behavioral neuroscience, behavioral genetics, psychophysiology, methodology and evaluation, and experimental psychology.” (SRpt 108-81)

In debate leading up to this report, NIH Committee Chair Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), Ranking Democrat Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), and senior NIH committee member Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) emphasized their individual interests in having NIGMS fund behavioral research in remarks that appeared in the Congressional Record on September 10, 2003. (See Senators Unite for Behavioral Research at NIGMS.)

APS worked with Congress on the NIGMS issue throughout this period. In fact, it was at a Congressional meeting encouraged by APS, between NIH Deputy Director Raynard Kington and then-acting NIGMS Director Judith Greenberg on the one side, and Representatives Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) and Brian Baird (D-WA) on the other, that Kington reported that NIH would convene the workgroup to review the role of basic behavioral science at all NIH institutes.

There is no question that the resources are in place for NIGMS to fund basic behavioral science research; it has one of the largest budgets at NIH. When the Institute was established by Congress, its charge was “the conduct and support of research, [and] training … with respect to general or basic medical sciences and related natural or behavioral sciences which have significance for two or more other national research institutes or are outside the general area of responsibility of any other national research institute.” (US Code Title 42, Chapter 6A, Subchapter III, Part C, subpart 11, Sec. 285k.)

As it does for basic research in other areas of science, NIGMS should support basic behavioral science research and training that provides a knowledge base for mission-specific institutes. “This is imperative both for scientific reasons and for policy reasons,” APS Executive Director Alan G. Kraut said. “For example, we know that NIMH is pulling back on its support of basic behavioral research science saying that, like many other NIH institutes, it too is disease specific and battles mental illness through translational and clinical research. Among other things, this means that now, more than ever, NIGMS must unequivocally support these basic behavioral science research needs.”

Working Group of the NIH Advisory Committee

Linda Waite, chair
University of Chicago, Sociology

Richard Axel
Columbia University, Biochemistry

Maja Bucan
University of Pennsylvania, Genetics

Laura Carstensen
Stanford University, Psychology

Richard J. Davidson
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Psychology

Susan T. Fiske
Princeton University, Psychology

William T. Greenough
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Psychology

Frances Degen Horowitz
City University of New York, Psychology

James Jackson
University of Michigan, Psychology

Robert W. Levenson
University of California, Berkeley, Psychology

Bruce McEwen
Rockefeller University, Neuroendocrinology

Jane Menken
University of Colorado at Boulder, Sociology

James Smith
RAND Corporation, Economics

David Takeuchi
University of Washington, Sociology

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