APA submits comments on two high-level NIH plans

Psychological perspective is offered on NIH Strategic Plan and ECHO Program.

In late August, 2015, NIH accepted comments for two important scientific plans. APA submitted comments on the draft framework for the NIH-wide Strategic Plan and comments on the new Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program (the successor to the National Children's Study).

The NIH-wide Strategic Plan will be the most recent all-inclusive plan developed by NIH since the mid-1990s. NIH accepted comments through August 16 on its draft framework, an outline which will help focus the developing strategic plan. According to the Request for Information (RFI), the goal of this larger NIH-wide strategic plan is “not to outline the myriad of important research opportunities for specific disease applications (as that is covered in the strategic plans from each of the ICOs, which will be referenced appropriately), but to highlight major trans-NIH themes. The Strategic Plan is due to the Congress in late December 2015.”

Answering the question on whether the draft framework comports with NIH’s stated mission, APA responded, in part: “APA is pleased to see the emphasis on support of research on healthy individuals and, we would add, normal development.  The life-course perspective employed at NICHD, NIA and NIAAA is critically important for understanding how the accumulation of both subtle and acute system damage may contribute to the development of disease, and, as well, how the development of strength and resilience over time may contribute to protection against disease.”

APA also made a pitch for a strong statement in support of research with non-human animals. “Scientific progress is enhanced when basic and translational research occurs at multiple levels of analysis and when multiple perspectives are employed.  This is facilitated by research efforts that include the humane and ethical use of animals, including nonhuman primates as models for human health and disease processes that cannot be studied easily, ethically, rigorously, or in sufficient detail in humans alone. APA urges NIH to emphasize the importance of trans-NIH research with animal models in the strategic plan given that attacks on this research are increasing.”

The RFI on the proposed plan for the new Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) program was released on July 13.  The ECHO program announcement was released not long after the December 2014 discontinuation of the controversial National Children’s’ Study (NCS), which began with the Vanguard Study in 2009.  In keeping with the spirit of the NCS, the initiatives in ECHO will address the impact of a range of environmental influences (including psychosocial factors) on children’s health and development (including neurodevelopment). 

APA offered comments on ECHO’s plan to leverage existing cohorts from the NCS in order to collect standardized data elements.  While APA expressed support for “the attempt to put together a very large, representative sample that, due to the use of existing cohorts, will minimize the costs of recruitment,” it expressed concern, noting “the quality of the outcome will likely be based on the quality of the samples and studies chosen, as well as the abilities of the investigators and research community to integrate the data in ways that address the questions needed to inform public health.”

APA also suggested that “expertise in the social and behavioral sciences be retained in the ECHO Coordinating Center, Steering Committee, and any related advisory groups and program offices.” This expertise is important in order to “yield consensus on study instruments, batteries of assessments, and outcome measures in order to quantify constructs of interest, especially to assure robust measurements of psychological and behavioral phenomena,” including identifying “instruments and measures appropriate for traditionally underrepresented populations and individuals with disabilities.”

APA also expressed hope that ECHO “include(s) a mention of environmental factors that contribute to resilience and enhanced social/behavioral and intellectual/cognitive development and functioning to complement the focus on impairment in these areas.”

APA’s Science Directorate staff took the lead in preparing both sets of comments.  They reached out to members of APA divisions and governance groups for their input on ideas to include in the comments.  Howard Kurtzman, acting executive director of the Science Directorate, noted “APA is a broad and deep source of scientific expertise, and we are grateful that our members were again willing to share their knowledge and insights with us as we advocate for psychology at the federal level.”