Customers examine sporting rifles at The Bullet Hole, a gun shop in Sarasota, Florida, in January 2013.

BRIAN BLANCO/REUTERS

NIH emails reveal divisions over renewal of gun research program

For weeks, questions have swirled around the U.S. National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) decision to shelve a firearms research program that was launched at the urging of former President Barack Obama's administration after 20 children and six educators were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, late in 2012. Among other things, it has been unclear what led to the decision, which came to light in September, and when it was made.

Now, Science has obtained internal agency emails under the Freedom of Information Act showing that in the months leading up to its expiration, program staff in several NIH institutes were keen to renew the 3-year firearms research initiative, which has spent $18 million funding 22 projects studying such questions as how to implement gun safety counseling by pediatricians to prevent youth suicide. But, according to the emails, senior NIH officials had other ideas.

On the heels of another mass shooting—the worst in modern U.S. history, in which 58 people were murdered and nearly 500 were injured in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 1 October—NIH is coming under pressure to revive the program. On 11 October, 26 U.S. Senate Democrats and one Independent senator wrote to NIH Director Francis Collins, urging him to renew the program, which ran from January 2014 to January 2017 under the title Research on the Health Determinants and Consequences of Violence and its Prevention, Particularly Firearm Violence.

The senators wrote of a "critical" need for gun violence research. They argued that legislative language known as the Dickey amendment, which prohibits U.S. health agencies from advocating or promoting gun control, does not block funding for "objective scientific inquiries into gun violence prevention."

Last fall, NIH program staff in Bethesda, Maryland, were optimistic that the initiative would be renewed. "That's great news," Valerie Maholmes, chief of pediatric trauma at NIH's child health institute, wrote to a colleague in October 2016, after hearing of a meeting scheduled to discuss renewal. "I get lots of inquiries about this."

Jane Pearson, chairperson of the suicide research consortium at NIH's National Institute of Mental Health, faced similar requests. "I have potential grantees asking," she wrote to Peggy Murray, director of the Global Alcohol Research Program at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Murray was game. She wrote to a colleague: "We could renew it if other institutes and centers want to. We do."

But the staff hit resistance to the program's title from George Koob, director of NIAAA, the institute coordinating the program. He wanted the word "firearm" removed before renewal. "That's too bad," Maholmes wrote to Murray. "We have so little firearms research. This program announcement called attention to that."

In an email to Science, Koob explained that, because of the strong link between violence and alcohol misuse, "We are interested in supporting research on this association in its broadest sense. … Removing ‘firearm’ from the title would allow for a far more comprehensive solicitation of research on this topic."

The NIH emails confirm that the push to renew the program ran squarely into political sensitivities, which were heightened after the election of President Donald Trump, whose campaign received $30.3 million in 2016 from the National Rifle Association. "The election results make everything more complicated," Robert Freeman, an administrator at NIAAA, wrote to Murray on 19 November 2016. This past January, Murray wrote to Freeman: "We should ask George [Koob] if his position has changed since the election. … We need to find out if he will still want us to sign on."

But two emails suggest that top NIH officials made the final call. First, in October 2016, as discussions on extending the program began, Liza Bundesen, a science policy adviser in the agency's Office of Extramural Research, alerted colleagues to a request from Lawrence Tabak, NIH's principal deputy director. "Larry would like … coordination to remain in the [Office of the Director] for now." Then, on 10 February, Freeman wrote to Pearson: "I just wanted to confirm that I heard from Peggy Murray that Larry Tabak had—at least, temporarily—decided to shelve the [program's] re-issue."

"I never made such a decision," Tabak says. He adds that reviving the program is "still being considered. So there has been no decision made not to reissue" announcements reopening the program.

Tabak stressed: "We haven't stopped funding work in this area and we intend on continuing to fund work in this area." He pointed to two grants that have been funded since the program was shelved. Worth $1.4 million this year alone, the multiyear grants, launched since June, are developing a web-based tool for firearm suicide prevention and building a database of childhood firearm injuries.

Asked whether Collins made the decision to not renew the program, spokesperson Renate Myles wrote: "No such decision has been made."