Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., Wanker

The forces of up-is-down-no-matter-what-scientists-tell-you are at it again. On July 18, the Wall St Journal ran an op-ed by Dr. E. F. Torrey defending an attempt to slash specific peer-reviewed and funded National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) grants. The piece--somewhat appropriately entitled "Pigeons vs People" given its bird-brained reasoning--defends Rep. Randy Neugebauer's (R-TX) latest attempts (see last year's) to use the House Labor, HHS, and education appropriations bill (HR 3010) to specifically target research he does not agree with:

“We have scarce resources that need to be focused on our most pressing mental health issues, such as discovering cures and better treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease and bipolar disorder.”

Says Neugebauer, but had he truly been interested in funding more Alzheimer's Disease and bipolar disorder research he might have wanted to fight to increase NIMH funding by a bit more than the 0.7% eventually adopted by the House. Instead, Neugebauer wants to overrule the peer-review process and that is why he, together with Torrey who defends him, earn this month's science wanker^2. More Neugebauer:

"One of the studies has been ongoing for nearly 15 years and has received more than $1.5 million to study 'Perceptual Bases of Visual Concepts.' This study examines how pigeons can classify lifelike visual stimuli into natural and artificial categories."

And Dr. Torrey adds in the WSJ:

"In any given year, NIMH supports between 10 and 20 studies of pigeons, and the NIMH research portfolio bulges with grants to examine marriage, adolescence, happiness and other aspects of human behavior."

I think that means he doesn't believe that studying "perception of visual concepts" falls under the auspices of the national institute of MENTAL HEALTH. If we go to the institute's website, however, we find that it states that its mission is:

"to reduce the burden of mental illness and behavioral disorders through research on mind, brain, and behavior.... To fulfill its mission, the Institute...conducts research on mental disorders and the underlying basic science of brain and behavior;"

Edward Wasserman, who according to Science Mag (sub. req.) is the target of Neugebauer and Torrey's pigeon hunt, clearly elaborates in his publications why this research is relevant and important to the human condition. Consider the very first sentence of the introduction in one of his most recent papers:

"Imagine that you wish to teach a child the twin concepts of same and different."

He elaborates on a few alternate methods of accomplishing this task and then explains why pigeons are important:

"Previous studies have indicated that pigeons and monkeys may attend to both abstract and relational information during learning (Dreyfus, Fetterman, Stubbs, & Montello, 1992; Wright, Cook, & Kendrick, 1989)."

Wow. It ain't Alzheimer's or bipolar, but it sure falls well within the NIMH mission to study "the underlying basic science of brain and behavior." So why are Neugebauer and Torrey dissing an animal model used to study perception and learning? Since I have no concrete evidence to be sure what Rep. Neugebauer's true intentions are, I can only assume he's really trying to help. But given that he's a conservative Republican from a conservative district in Texas, the other study he wants to de-fund could give some clues. That study involves "how the self-esteem of newlyweds affects their marriage" and well, attempting to de-fund that grant could go over quite well with a constituency inclined to believe a woman's self-esteem is determined by her husband in a christian marriage. Once again, I don't know that Neugebauer is being anything but an honest, upstanding politician, I'm just saying that this is kind of a coincidence, and that de-funding a pigeon study alongside the marriage study might make it look a little less obvious. I'm just saying.

Dr. Torrey, on the other hand supports depression research and I applaud him for all his efforts. But in the WSJ article, Torrey implies that the NIMH is not worthy of further funding since only 17% of NIMH funded studies funded are clinically relevant...don't know what the percentage is at other NIH institutes, but given that neuroscience is a relatively new field and there are lots of unanswered questions about the basic mechanisms of how the brain works, I guess 17% isn't all that bad right now. In the future, all the data currently produced should lead to very concrete results, that's just the way basic research works. Moreover, it's kind of strange to introduce that problem and then advocate a flawed strategy to solve it. There are two flaws to his solution. First, he would rather see this research funded by the NSF, an agency that has seen funds slashed dramatically recently. But this is not research designed to understand pigeons better (if it were, NSF should fund it), this is research into the fundamental mechanisms of learning and memory and perception. Secondly and more importantly, this sort of cherry-picking of which grants get cut after the peer-review process has deemed them worthy of funding could lead to some serious corruption in the future--here again, I assume that Dr. Torrey, like Rep. Neugebauer, has only the best interests for research at the NIH in mind. But I fear that at some point in the future another politician, let's say for the sake of argument a liberal democrat from MA, might feel tempted to de-fund a grant of a TX based scientist on a trumped-up charge in the hopes that his buddy at home doing similar research has a greater chance of his grant being funded. Though I'm sure O'Reilly would be on that story faster than you can say 'she flies with her own wings,' the 2006 appropriations would set a dangerous precedent for that sort of activity if the Neugebauer amendment were to be adopted by the full Congress.

Luckily, cooler heads prevail in the Senate and this amendment was not included in their version. Also, funding is increased by 3.7% in their Labor-HHS-education appropriations package. If this issue is in any way important to any of the readers of this blog, please be sure to contact your Senator and voice your support for the Senate version of the appropriations bill without the Neugebauer amendment, or simply click here and follow the directions. I think beyond that, we as scientists need to make it abundantly clear to the public how the grant review process works and why certain grants are funded by some institutes rather than others before this becomes a dangerous trend amongst legislators.