A review of the main UK bodies that funded mental health research revealed a significant bias towards biological or neuroscience research in the area of mental health. This bias was indicated in the strategic scoping statements of funding bodies (e.g. MRC, The Wellcome Trust), the disciplinary make-up of their research boards, and the relatively small number of clinical psychologists receiving awards.
In 2015 the Neuroscience & Mental Health Funding Panel of MRC had 25 members of which NOT ONE was either a clinical psychologist or an expert in experimental psychopathology. Of the 9 members of the Wellcome Trust Cognitive Neuroscience & Mental Health Expert Review Group, just one was a clinical psychologist, and in the 5 panels that assess applications for National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) fellowships only 1 out of a total of 74 members was a clinical psychologist.
So in the 3 years since June 2015 has anything changed?
The MRC’s Neurosciences & Mental Health Board is still responsible for the “MRC investments in disorders of the human nervous system”. In early 2017, MRC published its ‘strategy for lifelong mental health’ with the encouraging statement that this strategy would build on MRC’s strengths in integrative discovery science – linking across genes, animal studies, human psychological studies, in vivo imaging and circuit biology. This Board has 25 members of which 3 are psychologists – but none of these are clinical psychologists with research interests specifically in mental health aetiology or treatment, so its difficult to know what MRC means by the “human psychological studies” that it intends to include in its integrative approach to mental health.
Little has changed in the Wellcome Trust’s Cognitive Neuroscience & Mental Health Expert Review Groupexcept the size of the panel. The group has shrunk from 9 members in 2015 (of which one member was a clinical psychologist) to just 4 members in 2018 – all of whom are neuroscientists.
NIHR has revamped its Fellowship Programmesince 2015. The aim is to support individuals with the potential to become future leaders in NIHR research, and has been designed to support people at various points of their development to become leading researchers, with four different levels of Fellowship available. Fellowship applications are reviewed by three different panels consisting of a total of 81 members, of which currently there is 1 clinical psychologist and 1 health psychologist. This is not that different to 2015, in which psychology was represented by just 1 clinical psychologist from a total of 74 members across 5 boards. There was a small increase in psychologists funded between 2015 and 2017. Of a total of 437 current Fellowship award holders in July 2018, 13 were clinical psychologists, 4 were practitioner psychologists, and 1 was a health psychologist – a total of 18 psychologists (4.1%) in 2018, compared to February 2015 figures of 7 psychologists out of 380 awards (1.8%).
In my 2015 blog post, I did point out that many psychology researchers investigating mental health factors turn to the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) for funding, and ESRC have a topic under which mental health research falls and this is one of its five strategic priorities for investment (the “Health & Wellbeing” Research topic). In addition, ESRC specifically claims that it is “committed to commissioning activity and supporting research in mental health between the years 2016-2020”.
But although mental health is a priority area for ESRC, there isn’t a separate assessment process for such applications and my understanding is that they would normally go through the relevant grant assessment panel and so still be competing with health and wellbeing research applications from economists, social policy researchers, human geographers, criminologists, etc.
ESRC does have a Mental Health Leadership Fellow (currently Professor Louise Arseneault at Kings College, London), who is notified of successfulapplications in the mental health domain. This doesn’t seem to help anyone who might be a psychologist and applying for ESRC funding to do mental health research in the first place, but might help to provide publicity and future funding once a grant has been awarded.
Finally, the Research Councils have collectively recognized the need for mental health research across “medical, biological, environmental, cultural, societal, technical and historical perspectives” (note that there is no mention of a “psychological perspective” here! – but it is mentioned under in this more substantial documentoutlining the initiative). In response to this, a cross-disciplinary expert group was convened in 2016 consisting of “leading academics in the field of mental health”, and a budget of £9-10 million made available to fund 6 to 10 awards. The call for applications closed on 22ndMarch 2018
To date the make-up of this expert panel has not been made public, and, although Health Psychologist Professor Andrew Steptoe chaired it, it would be interesting to see how many clinical psychologists or experimental psychopathologists made the panel, and how many psychologists are involved in the successful awards when announced.
Why does all this matter? Let me re-iterate the points I made in 2015 – they are still as relevant today as they were three years ago:
- There is a large and persistent 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 does 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).