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House 'Peer Review' Kills Two NIH Grants

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Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 29-31
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5731.29

For the second year in a row, the House of Representatives has voted to cancel two federally funded psychology grants. A last-minute amendment to a spending bill would bar the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from giving any money in 2006 to the projects, one a study of marriage and the other research on visual perception in pigeons. The grants total $644,000 a year and are scheduled to run until 2008 and 2009.

The amendment was offered by Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), who last year won a similar victory involving two other grants, although his efforts were later rejected in a conference with the Senate. Researchers are hoping the Senate will come to the rescue again this year.

Neugebauer says that he is correcting skewed priorities at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in particular, the institute's “fail[ure] to give a high priority to research on serious mental illnesses.” But NIH officials and scientific societies say he's meddling in a grantsmaking process that is the envy of the world. In a statement before the vote, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni called the amendment “unjustified scientific censorship which undermines the historical strength of American science.”

Some House Republicans have been scrutinizing NIH's portfolio for the last few years and in 2003 almost killed several grants studying sexual behavior. Neugebauer's concerns echo the arguments of longtime NIMH critic E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist who contends that the agency should spend more on diseases such as depression and schizophrenia. Last year's vote was aimed at two NIMH psychology grants that had already ended, so the effect would have been symbolic (Science, 17 September 2004, p. 1688).

For the birds?

House lawmakers nixed a grant on perception research involving pigeons, long used in studies such as this B. F. Skinner experiment on operant conditioning.

CREDIT: BETTMANN/CORBIS

This year, the vote could have a real impact, and it came as a rude shock to the two principal investigators involved. “I'm disappointed that peer review is being undermined,” says Sandra Murray of the University at Buffalo in New York, who received $345,161 from NIMH in 2005 and is expecting an equivalent amount each year through early 2009. Murray has so far enrolled 120 newlywed couples—the target is 225—in a study of factors that contribute to stable marriage and to divorce, which, she notes, “has a huge societal cost.” Her study will also look at mental illnesses, she says. Neugebauer says funds for “research on happiness” would be better spent on new treatments for depression.

The second grant, to Edward Wasserman of the University of Iowa in Iowa City, continues his 14-year investigation of visual perception and cognition in pigeons. The study, slated to receive $298,688 a year through mid-2008, sheds light on “how the human brain works” and could help develop therapies for mental and developmental disorders, Wasserman says. Neugebauer, however, questions whether it “would have any value for understanding mental illnesses.”

The American Psychological Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges were part of a coalition that tried last week to quash the amendment, sending a flurry of letters to lawmakers. Several Democrats also opposed the cancellation, with Iowa Representative James Leach warning his colleagues belatedly that setting “a precedent of political 'seers' overriding scientific peers … is a slippery slope.” The Neugebauer language passed as part of a set of amendments that were not debated on the floor, and no vote count was recorded.

Observers expect this year's effort by Neugebauer to be deleted (as was the case last year) when the House and Senate meet to reconcile differences in the two bills. Still, says NIMH Director Thomas Insel, “this is really unfortunate. It adds a congressional veto to the process of peer review.” Adds lobbyist Patrick White of the Association of American Universities, “Our community has got to wake up on this. … We have a serious problem, and it's not going away.”

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