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NIH September Advisory Council

September 22, 2021

Each of the NIH Institutes has its own advisory council that plays four key roles: performing second-level review, advising on policy, reviewing programs, and developing and clearing concepts for: program announcements, requests for applications, and solicitations.

FABBS covers Council meetings for numerous Institutes of Health which invest in the behavioral and cognitive sciences to identify the opportunities — and sometime challenges — for our disciplines. FABBS monitors developments as NIH works to adopt their updated strategic plan and increase attention to the behavioral sciences and improve diversity, equity, and inclusion measures.

NIMH

Dr. Gordon welcomed Council members and the public to the 265th meeting of the NIMH Council on September 14th with an update on NIMH activities. Over the past several months, Dr. Gordon reported meeting with Congressional offices on a range of topics including mental health and addiction during COVID and suicide. While NIMH has been able to maintain success rate in the low 20s, too many meritorious proposals go unfunded due to budget limitations. The budget for NIMH that passed the House ($2,147,085,000) would enable NIMH to fund new research. Unfortunately, it is nearly certain that the government will be funded by a continuing resolution (CR) at least until December. The CR and budget uncertainty has implications for funding rounds, requiring institutes to be more conservative and cautious, and creating inefficiencies for all NIH institutes. Dr. Gordon mentioned ARPA-H as a possibility for funding for the behavioral sciences, noting special interest from the science and advocacy committee to emphasize that the ‘H’ includes mental health.

Dr. Gordon shared several updates to the NIMH strategic plan, originally released in 2020, reminding attendees that this is a living document and that NIMH welcomes submissions for potential highlights through the website. Updates include a new section on COVID-19, social determinants, and health disparities. NIMH introduced a new Progress Report, highlighting significant relevant accomplishments made during fiscal year 2020. The Progress pages highlight key contributions of NIMH-funded investigators in advancing research toward achieving the four Goals of the Strategic Plan and the Institute’s mission. FABBS is actively engaged with NIMH, bringing attention to the contributions of our sciences and also areas in need of additional investment.

Following up on earlier presentations on NIMH efforts to be more inclusive, Dr. Gordon shared an update on applicant demographics and progress on their promise to increase success rates of BIPOC applicants. The Council Meeting also included a presentation from Dr. Marie Bernard on the NIH UNITE Initiative and presented on the progress on promises made on February 26th to revisit NIH policies and practices to reduce structural racism. Tangible improvements include adding to the transparency by posting demographic information about NIH staff including information by race and ethnicity and type of employment. This was a key recommendation in the FABBS comments on UNITE. NIH has created the Anti-Racism Steering Committee with over 500 members. Furthermore, the performance expectation for IC Directors now includes measures of accountability for equity.

Dr. Susan Borja, Division of Translational Research, shared an excellent presentation on COVID-19 and Mental Health Research. Dr. Borja spoke about the correlation between mental illness and infection. Research has suggested that individuals with mental illness(es) experience compounded vulnerability to worse consequences for a variety of reasons that may include the additional stressors of living arrangements – such as homelessness, or incarceration – which are associated with higher rates of co-occurrence with the illness. Dr. Gordon sits on the executive committee of the Social, Behavioral and Economic Health Impacts of COVID-19 (SBE COVID) Initiative. This consortium of 21 NIH ICs received $11 million from the Office of the Director and pooled funds to provides supplements and grants looking at mitigation efforts and COVID data collection and challenges.

NICHD

Dr. Diane Bianchi opened the 177th meeting of the NICHD Council with her Director’s report, starting with a budget update from the Biden administration, whereby NICHD would receive a significant increase to $1.69 billion, of which $30 million would be for Implementing a Maternal health and PRegnancy Outcomes Vision for Everyone (IMPROVE) and $15 million for SARS in children. The Presidential Budget Request also recommended moving INCLUDE and ECHO into the NICHD budget, the NIH budget passed by the House did not include these recommendations.

In her remarks about COVID research, the director noted that only 45 percent of children 12- 18 have both doses of the vaccine, and mentioned significant challenges getting state level information. She also shared findings that in areas where more adults are vaccinated, fewer children infected.

During her presentation, Dr. Bianchi welcomed a new SRCD/AAAS fellow to NICHD. Dr. Karen Mulak, a psycholinguist will work in the Office of the Director. Dr. Susan Bookheimer, UCLA will be rotating off of the Council. Dr. Bookheimer is a cognitive neuroscientist, during her time on Council she advocated for attention to neurodevelopment in the NICHD strategic plan and for continued focus on intellectual developmental disabilities.

Also on the agenda was a presentation by Sonia Lee on the Return to School Diagnostic Initiative – underserved and vulnerable populations (RADx-UP). Dr. Lee is the acting Branch Chief of the Maternal and Pediatric Infectious Disease Branch and began her talk with an explanation of all that schools provide in addition to education. She explained that in addition to being a place of learning, schools are critical to the development and well being of students, social emotional learning, safety, reliable nutrition, often providing physical therapy and mental health services and creating opportunities for physical activity. This is an extremely important point, underscoring the intersection between health and education and an area of interest of many FABBS members.

Before turning to concept clearance, Council Member Catherine Lang, Washington University School of Medicine asked a question about the role of disinformation and the consequences of inaccurate information on the health and well-being of children. Dr. Lang noted that this is likely to continue to be a concern and challenge for future pandemics.

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