COVID-19 Show message

Skip to content

Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Funding Research – It Takes a Village

By on

At NIMH we describe ourselves as the nation’s largest funder of research on mental illness. I am delighted to say we now have some competition. Recently, Ted Stanley and the Stanley Foundation announced a $650 million charitable gift to the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard for research on the molecular basis of psychiatric disorders. The Broad team is already on the cutting edge of genomics research. This extraordinary gift will allow them to move faster and deeper into the biology linking genomic variation to normal and abnormal brain function.

Ted Stanley’s gift to Broad is unprecedented in size but not unique. Jim Simons through the Simons Foundation has been investing over $50 million in autism research each year and is now launching a $50 million brain initiative. Paul Allen through the Allen Institute for Brain Science has launched a $300 million initiative to understand how brain circuits function. And Steve and Connie Lieber have established the Lieber Institute for Brain Development at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine with a gift of $200 million.

These individual commitments fill an important niche. While there has been a long history of nonprofit funding of research by groups like NARSAD—now called the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation—and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, non-profit support for research on mental illness has been modest relative to support for cancer, heart disease, and type 1 diabetes. In contrast to these other areas of medicine, most of the advocacy and philanthropy for mental health has been focused on services, not science. In a nation where the care of mental illness takes place too often in the criminal justice system, or is absent altogether, a focus on improving access and quality of services certainly is urgently needed. But the lesson from other areas of medicine is that we also need better science if we are to provide better services. Even more than for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, when it comes to mental illness, we do not know enough.

That is why these major philanthropic gifts are so important. The complexity, the public health burden, and the economic costs of brain disorders will require a massive commitment. The NIH generally, including the NIMH, has lost more than 20 percent of its purchasing power over the past decade. The pharmaceutical industry, which traditionally has been a major supporter of basic biomedical science, has largely left psychiatric research. While other countries, especially China and within the EU, are rapidly increasing their overall commitment to biomedical research, mental illness is generally not a priority, and the absolute level of research funding abroad remains considerably less than current U.S. spending. There are a few new international charities emerging, such as MQ, but more often global philanthropy targets services, not research.

Recent progress in genomics and imaging is stunning. But translating this progress into better diagnostics and therapeutics will take a village. NIMH can’t do it alone. How heartening that finally our field is beginning to receive the magnitude of non-profit investment that it will need to reduce the burden of mental illness.