Sunday, October 10, 2004

Research Priorities Scrutinized

Some recent articles have caught my attention.  They are: NIMH Shifts Research Priorities, and Can Prayers Heal? Critics Say Studies Go Past Science's Reach.  The director of NIMH defends the changes, citing a report by a distinguished committee as justification.  But some things just don't add up here.  They are following a recipe, but is it a recipe that leads to something of substance?

NIMH shifts research priorities
Scientists fear curtailed funding for basic social and behavioral research
By Ted Agres
September 30, 2004

Psychologists funded by the US government, already wary of congressional meddling in peer-reviewed federal research grants, say they are now concerned that the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), their primary source of federal support, is curtailing funding for social and behavioral sciences, areas traditionally considered integral to basic research in the field.

Under a strategic reorganization plan that takes effect tomorrow (October 1), NIMH, one of the 27 institutes and centers of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will shift research funding to areas deemed to have the most relevance to public health issues, such as neurological diseases and major mental disorders. "We have a mission from Congress to focus on mental health," NIMH Director Thomas Insel told The Scientist. "There are areas we are trying to redirect, areas we need to look at more closely."

Officials at professional research societies say that starting about 6 months ago, NIMH began rejecting far more grant applications from behavioral and social scientists than ever before. "They would get a note saying, 'Sorry, this is no longer relevant to the mission of NIMH,'" said Steve Breckler, executive director for science at the American Psychological Association. "It's causing alarm bells to go off."

The rest of the article goes on to explain that a committee of distinguished scientists reviewed the research priorities at NIMH.  They published their findings in May 2004.  The NIMH director explains the changes be saying "We have a mission from Congress." 

But some things are not adding up.  The article was published in September.  The scientists affected say the funding changes started about six months before, which would have been March.  That would have been two months before the committee report, which is what the director cited to justify the changes.  But he also said that they were acting as they were because of their mission from Congress.  Which was it?  The committee report, or the mandate from Congress? 

Is there a problem?  Perhaps.  I have hypothesized that there is a handful of activist congresspersons who, for ideological reasons, have distorted the research priorities.  What is the evidence to support this hypothesis?  In addition to what I mentioned above, there is the following:

I read the committee report ("Setting Priorities for Basic Brain & Behavioral Science at NIMH," Report of the National Advisory Mental Health Council's Workgroup on Basic Sciences, May 2004.), and I must say, it sounds sensible.  I can't fault the authors, nor can I quibble with their credentials.  But I did not see anything in the report that would really justify the changes in funding that are taking place, and I do not see how the director can justify the changes based on the report.  Therefore, I suspect that it was Congress, not the report, that is the culprit here. 

Furthermore, if the motivation for the changes were purely scientific, we would expect to see a consistent pattern of focus on real science.  We would not expect to see funding for unscientific studies.On the other hand, if the motivation were ideological, we might see studies that promote that ideology.  And today, in the NYT, we see the following:

Can Prayers Heal? Critics Say Studies Go Past Science's Reach
October 10, 2004

In 2001, two researchers and a Columbia University fertility expert published a startling finding in a respected medical journal: women undergoing fertility treatment who had been prayed for by Christian groups were twice as likely to have a successful pregnancy as those who had not.

Three years later, after one of the researchers pleaded guilty to conspiracy in an unrelated business fraud, Columbia is investigating the study and the journal reportedly pulled the paper from its Web site.

No evidence of manipulation has yet surfaced, and the study's authors stand behind their data.

But the doubts about the study have added to the debate over a deeply controversial area of research: whether prayer can heal illness.

Critics express outrage that the federal government, which has contributed $2.3 million in financing over the last four years for prayer research, would spend taxpayer money to study something they say has nothing to do with science.

"Intercessory prayer presupposes some supernatural intervention that is by definition beyond the reach of science," said Dr. Richard J. McNally, a psychologist at Harvard. "It is just a nonstarter, in my opinion, a total waste of time and money." [...]

Hmmm.  The American Psychological Association members get their funding cut, yet over the past four years, we've spent two million, three hundred thousand dollars on prayer research????

It is said that there are two things you don't want to see made: legislation, and sausage.  But this is not sausage; it is pure baloney. 

It appears that what is happening, is that the NIMH has shifted research priorities, in part, to areas that could be expect to have direct application to pharmacological treatments for mental illness.  Now, since that is what I do for a living, my first impression is to agree with the changes.  And if the altered priorities result in more commercially viable treatments, that would be good for the economy, which would benefit us all. 

Excessive focus on commercial applications is like trying to put birthday candles on a cake without baking the cake first.  Sure, we all like frosting and candles.  But you can't skip the steps that come before that. Scientific endeavor has to occur in a context; you need the whole package.  If you focus too much on the "good parts," you get no substance.  You can't put candles into frosting, if there is no cake underneath. 

Sure, there are judgments to be made, and sure, some focus on commercial application is appropriate.  If that is to work, then the person making the judgments has to have valid motivations.  If the motivations were as pure as has been claimed, then the funding changes should reflect the content of the committee report.  But they do not.  And we should have seen an end to funding for prayer research.  But we have not.  Furthermore, the director of NIMH said that he was making choices based up his "mission" from Congress.  Using the word "mission" in this context is a little strange, sort of like when a president -- who denies that a particular war has an ideological basis -- calls it a "crusade." 

Do we really want a handful of activist congresspersons exerting this kind of influence? 

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