So how do research psychologists with an interest in mental health get their hands on funding for psychological approaches and models? Only with great difficulty it seems!
Over the past decade or more, I’ve been hearing more and more stories from researchers of how psychologically-oriented research is being blatantly squeezed out of the funding picture in favour of basic biological research. In this post I’m focusing on what the current picture looks like in the UK, but I know that many experimental psychopathologists in other parts of Europe are experiencing similar funding biases towards biological models – even to the point where the medics and biologists on many funding panels don’t know what a psychological model is - let alone know how to evaluate one!
Lets look at the current funding situation for mental heath research in the UK. Two of the largest funders that explicitly advertise funding for mental health problems are the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust.
The Neuroscience & Mental Health Funding Panel of the MRC claim:
“We fund innovative research that tells us how the brain controls our behaviour, how the nervous system functions throughout life in health and disease and how it responds to injury. We also support the development of tools and techniques that help others carry out research on the nervous system. We are particularly interested in multidisciplinary research that will increase our understanding of the brain in health and disease.”
The mental health research that we fund includes clinical, developmental, genetic and neuropharmacological aspects of poor mental health and the pathways to mental illness and wellbeing.”
Not much scope for psychological models there then! There is the mention of ‘clinical’ aspects of poor mental health, but I suspect that is a direct reference to the general sense of the term ‘clinical’ in relating to the treatment of actual patients rather than to the approaches typical of clinical psychology. Why do I think this? Because currently the Neuroscience & Mental Health Funding Panel has 23 members of which NOT ONE is either a clinical psychologist or an expert in experimental psychopathology.
Now let’s look at the Wellcome Trust “Cognitive Neuroscience & Mental Health Expert Review Group”. The claim here is that:
‘This Expert Review Group will consider requests for support to improve understanding of how the brain functions at the cognitive level, and to find improved approaches for treating brain and mental health disorders. Its remit includes:
• Systems-based research including cognition and behavioural neuroscience
• Neurological disorders
• Mental health disorders
• Translational neuroscience, including cognitive interventions
Genetics with detailed clinical phenotypic assessments.”
Its remit does include ‘mental health disorders’ and it regularly mentions ‘cognition’ as a suitable topic for research. However, I suspect it’s not expecting many grant applications from psychologists, because of the 9 current members of this expert review group, only one is a clinical psychologist.
I don’t have any figures to support this claim, but I suspect that the number of experimental psychopathology or clinical psychology applications submitted to both MRC and the Wellcome Trust has declined significantly over the past 10-15 years, but from the staffing of their review panels, it seems clear that these two organizations are not encouraging submissions based on psychological approaches nor currently do they have the expertise to effectively evaluate them if they do receive any.
In response to the obvious biological and medical remit of the MRC and the Wellcome Trust, many psychological researchers investigating mental health issues have turned to the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) for funding. For the ESRC, mental health falls under the “Health & Wellbeing” Research Topic – but this Research Topic does not simply specialize in funding psychological models of mental health, but the funding of mental health research across the disciplines of economics, social policy, politics, human geography, legal studies, criminology, demography, and education to name but a few.
If you’re a clinical psychologist or an experimental psychopathologist your research would fall under Panel A, and so you would have to compete for funding with Economists, Management & Business Studies, and Statistics, Computing & Methodologies. Panel A has 16 members of which 6 are currently psychologists – but none are clinical psychologists or experts in mental health research per se.
Another general source of funding for mental health researchers is the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). But if you are a clinical psychologist then your chances of success seem to be limited if you are competing with all other medical and health professionals for funding. For example, NIHR funds research fellowships at five levels from doctoral to senior and transitional research level. The 5 panels that assess applications consist of a total of 74 members – of which just 1 is a clinical psychologist! The February 2015 figures show that out of 380 current personal awards from NIHR, only 7 have gone to clinical psychologists, and only 42 of these awards have gone to mental health researchers in general.
So why does all this matter?
· There is a large and growing bias in UK mental health research funding towards biological and medical models, and away from psychological approaches and models. This discriminates against the valuable contribution made to an understanding of mental health problems by psychological models.
· Even if psychological researchers do attempt to apply for funds from the main mental health research funders, their panels do not appear to be populated with experts capable of properly evaluating psychological submissions.
· The relentless focus of funding bodies on biological and medical models of mental distress do not match the priorities of service user groups, many of whom express a very clear desire for alternatives to medication, they support models that reflect the social model of disability, and favour better person-centred support (e.g. the National Survivor User Network).
This is becoming an urgent matter, and it would seem to be an issue that needs to be addressed by the professional bodies representing both psychological researchers in general and clinical psychologists in particular. We also need to remember that psychology’s contribution to mental health is not simply at the level of the development of effective psychological interventions, but also at the level of developing etiological models of mental health problems based on psychological processes. The current paucity of funding outlets for psychological approaches has already made these approaches wrongly appear to be ‘second class’ in comparison with biological and medical models. That unjustified imbalance needs to be fully repaired.