Government Relations Update

The National Institutes of Health is creating a single institute for substance use, abuse and addiction research funding, a move that will fold in the major portfolios of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and possibly components of other institutes’ portfolios.

Many details of the reorganization remain to be worked out, but the reorganization will have a significant impact on the funding and direction not only of research surrounding substance use, but also of mental health research and behavioral and neuroscience research broadly.

APA has been providing input on and monitoring the reorganization of the institutes in hopes that overall funding is not diminished for substance use research and that the reorganization taps the expertise of the psychological science community.

In particular, psychological scientists are concerned that in today’s austere budgetary climate, a reorganization could be used to scale back important elements of the current institutes’ portfolios that have traditionally been very supportive of behavioral and social science.

Background on the change

NIH first formally discussed a possible reorganization in April 2009. The institute’s Scientific Management Review Board asked several groups to determine what changes, if any, could optimize the support for NIH research on substance use, abuse and addiction. Central to that discussion was the possible merger of NIDA and NIAAA, an idea that has circulated informally within NIH for years.

Soon after, APA and its members weighed in on the possible restructuring. Among the APA members who gave input on the restructuring were Mark Goldman, PhD, of the University of South Florida; Thomas Greenfield, PhD, of the Public Health Institute; Stephanie O’Malley, PhD, of Yale University School of Medicine; and Linda Porrino, PhD, of Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Armed with that input, as well as insights from many other stakeholders, in November, NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, announced his support for the reorganization. Although no specific timetable has been released, Collins has said he expects a detailed plan from the task force this summer.

NIH observers have noted that one implication of a merger is that it could open the way for further reorganization. Since federal laws limit the number of institutes and centers to 27, a merger creates space for a new institute or center to be established.

APA’s specific advice

APA has provided substantive input to the reorganization process, working with other scientific groups, including the College on Problems of Drug Dependence, Research Society on Alcoholism, Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, The Center for Tobacco Free Kids and Society of Behavioral Medicine. APA’s latest communication was a Dec. 10 letter to NIH’s Collins from APA Chief Executive Officer Norman B. Anderson, PhD.

In the letter, APA urged NIH to:

  • Maintain funding for substance use, abuse and addiction research, which is now significantly underfunded when weighed against the public health and public safety impact associated with alcohol, tobacco and illicit substance use. “While we acknowledge that funding allocations are largely under the purview of Congress, we would also strongly urge you to consider using your discretionary authority to correct any budgetary shortfalls associated with a reorganization,” Anderson said.
  • Avoid “orphaning” research. Research currently funded by NIAAA and NIDA should not be redistributed to institutes that do not have a historic understanding of the medical consequences, public health/public safety and other public policy issues associated with substance use (such as, for example, fetal alcohol syndrome research at NIAAA).
  • The Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research (OBSSR) must play a central role. Substance abuse research depends to a large extent on understanding human behavior. As a result, OBSSR is “uniquely suited” to help integrate the NIDA and NIAAA research portfolios.
  • Beware of missed opportunities. A protracted reorganization could result in missed scientific opportunities in alcohol, tobacco and illicit substance use research that ultimately compromise public health and safety. “Any reorganization should be designed and constructed to minimize disruption to the remarkable progress of ongoing research in substance use at NIH,” Anderson said.

As the reorganization continues, there will be many opportunities for continued external stakeholder input and review. Comments can be submitted to the new Feedback NIH website. APA and its partners will continue to monitor and provide input to the reorganization process.

Geoff Mumford, PhD, is associate executive director for government relations in APA’s Science Directorate.