Research Infrastructure

Committee on Aging Frontiers in Social Psychology, Personality, and Adult Developmental Psychology.

Publication Details

As stated in our recommendation in Chapter 1, the committee strongly supports the development of integrated interdisciplinary grants that will take the best conceptual and measurement work from social, personality, and adult development psychology and link it with comparable work from other disciplines, such as economics, biostatistics, neurosciences, demography, health psychology, geriatric medicine, behavioral economics, social neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, and engineering, in order to address important social and health problems of relevance to the mission of the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

Currently, the Behavioral and Social Research Program at NIA offers a variety of research funding mechanisms, including traditional individual research grants, small business innovation research grants, training and conference grants, research program projects, and grants for research centers, including exploratory, center core, specialized centers, and comprehensive centers. However, stimulation of interdisciplinary work might involve not only innovative variations of current mechanisms, but also new mechanisms, innovative use of review resources, and partnerships among government agencies, foundations, and professional societies.

In order to facilitate collaboration between disciplines, funding mechanisms need to provide for sustained contact between disciplines and mutual education in the approaches of each discipline. For example, short-term salary support for researchers of different disciplines would enable those in one field to learn enough about the other field in order to plan an interdisciplinary research project. Another new mechanism might be a “paired K award” (perhaps called KK awards, after the K awards from the National Institutes of Health [NIH]1), in which two scientists from the same or neighboring institutions jointly apply for career development awards that specify continued collaboration over the life of the award. Similarly, there might be senior KK awards that are career awards for collaborative leadership.

Flexibility in the use of K awards for academic faculty could also stimulate interdisciplinary training and development. For example, the award might provide summer salary rather than a percentage of the academic year salary, or a research costs category for a faculty member. This type of customization to fit the needs of academic faculty would be parallel in intent to customizing physician-scientist K awards to meet the structure of the career paths of physician-scientists.

We encourage interdisciplinary center grants designed to facilitate collaboration. These grants could be modeled, for example, on the R24 infrastructure grants given by the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and other NIH entities to support research in mind-body medicine2 or on the grants for transdisciplinary centers given by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in which the first phase of the award provides funds for meeting and talking in order to generate new ideas. Center grants could also require setting aside funds for a certain number of cross-disciplinary pilot projects to be funded within the center.

In addition, small grants could be given for holding technical assistance workshops or other training events that would teach about one discipline and would take place the day before the professional meeting of another discipline. Another possibility for NIA is to give grants to develop and hold short courses (e.g., 1 or 2 weeks) on methodology. There are several models for successful short courses on technical topics. NIA support of the costs of developing and offering such courses could substantially promote dissemination of new ideas and methodological developments across fields.

We suggest consideration by NIH of encouraging nonprofit organizations or even universities to apply for NIA funding to administer a small grants program to promote specific aspects of interdisciplinary work. A very successful model of such a program is the “small grants in behavioral economics” program run by the Russell Sage Foundation (for details, see, accessed October 13, 2005). This program supports junior faculty who are pursuing new, small-scale research projects and also serves as a mechanism for faculty to fund diverse graduate student projects. Both of these types of projects are very difficult to fund with traditional funding mechanisms and yet can contribute significantly to interdisciplinary research. Another model is the program sponsored by the Retirement Research Foundation, which funded an autonomy initiative that entailed both awarding a number of small grants and bringing grantees together to create greater synergy.

There are precedents for NIH to fund scientific or professional organizations or universities to build momentum in an area of study through training grants. For example, StartMH Program of the National Institute of Mental Health, administered by the University of California-San Diego, partners students at all levels with faculty mentors across the country for a summer-long research apprenticeship, and holds one workshop for all participants.

Since it is difficult for the NIH to administer small grants, it might be useful to use the model of professional organizations for training grants. For example, the American Psychological Association administers training grants that support students at universities across the United States, while also providing opportunities for networking among those students. The grants funded under such a program might be very small (e.g., less than $10,000) with a very minimal application process (e.g., a 1-3 page proposal conveyed by email), a very rapid review (e.g., 1-2 weeks), and minimal requirements for a final report.

A new type of training grant could be made by NIA to centers in social, personality, and adult development psychology for predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees to partner with demography centers at the same or a nearby university for interdisciplinary training.

Because the evaluation of interdisciplinary work is so difficult, the Center for Scientific Review of the NIH could establish a special peer review group devoted to grants of this type. It would be relatively easy for NIH or National Science Foundation to evaluate any of these alternative mechanisms for facilitating interdisciplinary work after a 5-year trial period and then decide whether or not it should be continued.

The topics we recommend for a focused research program on aging for the NIA can benefit enormously from the kind support envisioned by the committee's recommendation on infrastructure. With flexibility to cross disciplines, foster small-scale efforts, and encourage innovative ways to approaching the exciting questions in aging research, we believe major strides in understanding certain key aspects of aging can be realized in a short time. The promise of those strides is a better quality of life for the nation's older adults, as well as better contributions from them to the nation's well-being.



K02 awards allow early to mid-career investigators—who have received prior funding—to develop skills and collaborations to become leaders in their research fields; K07 awards allow senior investigators to develop an area of aging research at a university or other research institution. There are also many other types of K awards. See http://grants2​​/training/careerdevelopmentawards.htm (accessed December 2005).


A central goal of this program is to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation in mind-body and health research while providing essential and cost-effective core services in support of the development, conduct, and translation into practice of mind-body and health research based in centers or comparable administrative units. See http://obssr​​/RFA_PAs/MindBody/MBFY04/Start​.htm#infrastructure​%20initiatives (accessed December 2005).