Stimulus Smiles on Autism Research

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

So far, the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation have said they plan to spend the bulk of the stimulus money on already-reviewed research projects proposed by investigators. But today, NIH announced a different way to use a tiny portion of the $10 billion it got: It has set aside up to $60 million specifically for autism research to be spent as soon as possible. NIH will spend $118 million on autism in 2008, so it's a big increase.

There is no mention of autism in the Recovery Act, meaning the $60 million is not a congressional directive, or so-called disease earmark, that would be anathema to many scientists. Instead, five NIH institutes allocated the money on their own, says National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel.

They are responding to a just-completed autism research plan ordered by Congress. The timing of the recovery funds is "fortuitous," Insel says, and gives NIH "a chance to do things differently." The focus will be on clinical trials and tools and resources that can make good headway over 18 months—autism screening tests and a patient database, for example. Whether NIH will spend the entire $60 million depends on the quality of proposals, Insel says.

He adds that even though autism has "a very effective advocacy group," NIH would be expanding its autism research anyway, even if that means cutting other areas, because of the soaring rate of the disease and recent breakthroughs. "The opportunities are really coming from the genetics. For the first time in 50 years, we've got targets," Insel says. For the same reason, Insel adds, NIH expects to use some stimulus funds to expand research on schizophrenia, even though sufferers of that disorder lack the same political clout.

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