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Parents leave a staging area after being reunited with their children following a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman murdered 20 children and six educators on 14  December, 2012.

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

NIH quietly shelves gun research program

Four years after then-President Barack Obama responded to the shooting deaths of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by ordering U.S. health agencies to sponsor gun research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has let lapse a funding program specifically calling for research on firearm violence and how to prevent it, Science has learned. Renewal of the program, which has funded 14-firearm related projects for $11.4 million over the past 3 years, "is still under consideration" a NIH spokesperson said on 6 September, although the agency stopped accepting proposals in January and the last new awards are now being launched.

NIH told Science that scientists may still apply to do firearm research outside the program. Gun researchers say that's not enough, noting that thematic funding programs signal NIH priorities to scientists. They can also help tilt grant decisions toward those in the highlighted area over others that are equally good, but outside it. "It's really critically important to renew that program if we want more firearms research," says Rina Das Eiden, a developmental psychologist at the State University of New York in Buffalo.

Das Eiden and several collaborators won an award to study whether violence exposure and substance use raise the odds of gun violence in high-risk adolescents. "It would have been much harder for us to get funding for this research without that specific program announcement on firearm violence," she says.

The funding stream "was mission critical to bringing me into a new area," adds clinical psychologist Rinad Beidas of the University of Pennsylvania. Beidas won a grant to study how to implement gun safety counseling by pediatric primary care physicians to prevent youth suicide.

A prominent gun rights advocacy group says the program is redundant, however, and charges that it is driven by an antigun animus. "Private groups and foundations donate millions of dollars to fund firearm research every year," says Lars Dalseide, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action in Fairfax, Virginia. "When the government gets involved, and political agendas are allowed to supersede scientific analysis, the end product is nothing but a waste of tax-payer money."

Congress has long prohibited the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using government money "to advocate or promote gun control," and in 2012 extended that restriction to other agencies in the Department of Health and Human Services. Obama argued, however, that research was not advocacy, and in response to his directive, NIH issued three funding opportunities for "Research on the Health Determinants and Consequences of Violence and its Prevention, Particularly Firearm Violence." The application window would close in January 2017, the agency noted.

A score of violence researchers and public health experts last November wrote to the agency's lead official on the firearm research initiative, George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, urging him to renew the program. "Think how many hundreds or thousands of [NIH] program announcements revolve around heart disease or cancer," says Charles Branas of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, a longtime firearm researcher who signed the letter. "And they devoted one fleeting program announcement to this."

The $34 billion agency said last week that it is still evaluating the current program's outcomes and has no timeline for a decision on its renewal.

*Clarification: 21 November, 11:15 a.m.: This story has been changed to clarify that not all grants funded for $18 million under the research initiative specifically addressed firearm violence; some went to research on other kinds of violence. Specifically, 14 of the awards, accounting for $11.4 million of the $18 million, contain the words firearm, firearms, gun, guns, handgun, shootings or weapons in their title or abstract.