Blacklisted Professors

What's it like to have your projects singled out to lose money in a U.S. House vote? Two researchers explain what their work is really about.
July 6, 2005

Some researchers dream of capturing the attention of Congress. Sandra Murray and Edward Wasserman wish a certain Texas Congressman had never heard of them.

Murray, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Wasserman, the Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Iowa, had their studies singled out when the House of Representatives voted last month to approve an appropriations bill for the National Institutes of Health.

Rep. Randy Neugebauer, a Texas Republican, successfully sponsored an amendment to bar the National Institute of Mental Health from providing any additional support to two research projects that they head. He said that the projects -- one dealing with marriage and one dealing with pigeons -- were outside the institute's mission, despite strong backing from the institute. The amendment has infuriated many researchers, who say that members Congress should not block projects that have been approved through the NIH's respected peer review system. The Senate has yet to vote on the bill.

Murray and Wasserman agreed to answer questions about their research and their recent experience. Their answers follow:

Q: What's it like to have your research project become the target of a member of Congress?

Murray: It’s very upsetting and alarming. The peer review system is the foundation of science, and the actions Congress has taken completely undermine peer review. The peer review system at NIH/NIMH is incredibly rigorous, and a large number of scientists across the country volunteer their time and energies to ensure the scientific merit of the research that is funded through NIH/NIMH. Targeting specific grants is scientific censorship, and I would hope no other researchers would have to experience this kind of attack after following all of the rules, and going through the established process for securing funding. The one positive in this whole experience has been having the support of my colleagues and the support of NIH -- the community has rallied to support the integrity of peer review and I’m grateful to everyone for their energies on our collective behalf.

Wasserman: It’s frankly startling that, after thorough evaluation by multiple layers of peer scientists and professional administrators for both scientific excellence and mental health relevance, a currently funded NIMH research project can be subject to de-funding by Congress without thorough debate and accountable voting. So, instead of finalizing my presentation to an international psychological congress, finishing three scientific papers for publication, and mentoring a visiting high school student in my laboratory, I’ve had to direct virtually all of my attention to Congressional actions and political maneuvers.

Q: How would you explain your research and why it matters to those who say it's irrelevant?

Murray: Marital disruption and divorce has huge costs for adult mental and physical health, not to mention the negative effects marital conflict and divorce has on children. My research looks specifically at how people develop and nurture relationships, and it has direct implications for both the treatment of marital discord, and the study of mental illnesses, such as major depression, where the inability to form or maintain relationships is an important symptom. Given how important satisfying marriages are for physical and mental well-being, it is absolutely critical to use scientific methods to understand what makes marriages function well. 

Also, contrary to the assertion that NIMH's mission should focus solely on severe mental illnesses, and away from promoting mental health, the Public Health Service Act provides a clear picture of Congressional intent regarding NIMH's mission: "The research program established under this subpart shall include support for biomedical and behavioral neuroscience and shall be designed to further the treatment and prevention of mental illness, the promotion of mental health, and the study of psychological, social, and legal factors that influence behavior...."

Wasserman: We use a well-established animal model -- the pigeon -- to study basic mechanisms of perception and cognition. Because pigeons do not speak, we must develop and deploy state-of-the-art technologies to reveal how they see and understand the world: Perception and cognition are vital to behavioral adaptation. For many reasons, human adults and children suffer from profound behavioral disorders, leaving them unable to communicate or to engage in adaptive behaviors. Our research may help therapists and educators to devise new methods for improving these individuals’ behavioral competence, so that they can become more productive members of our society.

Q: Does this experience make you think scholars whose research potential isn't immediately obvious need to do a better job of explaining things to the public? How can they do so?

Murray: Yes, I do. I think we could both do a better job of relaying the results of our research to the public, and in explaining why it’s necessary to use scientific tools to understand basic behavior. I think one way we can do this is by continuing to educate our undergraduates in how to test and evaluate ideas using scientific principles. We also need to communicate to the public that there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge about health and some of them are very fundamental and complex, so NIH needs to put money toward research in many different areas.

Wasserman: Of course, we can always be more effective in communicating the merits of basic scientific research to the public. We are first and foremost educators. Our classrooms are the initial line of contact with the public. Finding additional ways to bring the message to an even broader audience has been a longstanding priority of the National Science Foundation, which has struggled in this vital effort because of inadequate federal funding. Science literacy in the United States falls far short of where it should be; we need to catch up with more progressive nations.

Q: Does it undermine your belief in the peer review system to have a project approved and then placed at risk by Congress?

Murray: No, I have complete faith in the peer review system. It operates beautifully, and has produced high quality science for decades. 

Wasserman: Absolutely not. The peer review system is the finest means ever devised to guarantee that the best research is being conducted and is effectively aimed at the nation’s pressing needs. Health care in the United States would be in a sorry state if this system had not been in place. These facts need to be better communicated to members of Congress.

Q: Does this experience make you think scholars should pay more attention to Congressional elections? Will you?

Murray: Yes. The academic community needs to take action so that these kinds of attacks on peer review can be prevented in the future. As a group, we could also be more involved in government and not miss the opportunity to educate one another about issues important to scientists within our states or districts.

Wasserman: All citizens should participate in all local and federal elections; such participation is a treasured right which is the bedrock of our republic. I have never failed to vote nor will I ever do so. I believe that this latest episode will encourage scholars and scientists to be even more mindful of why it is critical for them to add their voices to the democratic process; electing members of Congress who respect the fairness and effectiveness of the peer review process will reduce the chances of this kind of event happening again. Here, I would like explicitly to thank Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) for his unflagging support of the NIH peer review system.


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