House "Peer Review" Kills Two NIH Grants

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, passed Friday, bars the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from giving any money in 2006 to the projects, one a study of marriage and the other an investigation of visual perception in pigeons.

The amendment was offered by Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-TX), who last year won a similar victory in the House, involving two other grants, that was later overturned by the Senate (Science, 17 September 2004, p. 1688). Neugebauer says he is correcting skewed priorities at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in particular, the institute's "fail[ing] to give a high priority to research on serious mental illnesses." But NIH officials and scientific societies say that he's meddling in a grantsmaking process that is the envy of the world. NIH Director Elias Zerhouni called the amendment "unjustified scientific censorship."

This year's vote came as a rude shock to the two principal investigators. "I'm disappointed that peer review is being undermined," says Sandra Murray of the University at Buffalo, New York, who received $345,161 from NIMH in 2005 and expected similar amounts through early 2009. Murray is enrolling newlywed couples in a study of factors that contribute to stable marriage and to divorce, which, she notes, "has a huge societal cost." 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 15-year investigation of perception and cognition in pigeons. The study, which is slated to receive about $298,688 a year through mid-2009, sheds light on "how the human brain works," Wasserman says. Neugebauer, however, questions whether it "would have any value for understanding mental illness."

The American Psychological Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges were part of a coalition that tried unsuccessfully last week to quash the amendment, sending a flurry of letters to lawmakers. Several Democrats also opposed the cancellation. The amendment passed as part of a set of amendments that were not debated on the floor, and no vote count was recorded.

Observers expect the amendment to be deleted, as was the case last year, when the House and Senate meet to reconcile differences in the two bills. Still, says 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."

Related sites
Press release from Representative Randy Neugebauer
Coalition to Protect Research