Vice President for Science

Funding of Couple and Family Research: The Continuing Quest

One of my goals as VP of science for Div. 43 was to continue the multiyear efforts of current and past Div. 43 Board members to influence federal funding agencies regarding couple and family research.
By Steven L. Sayers, PhD

Steven Sayers The past 15 years have seen a dramatic shift away from the funding of these areas. I recently submitted comments about the strategic plan of NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), with Division 43’s Kristi Coop Gordon, Brian Doss, and Anthony Chambers. NICHD has been a reasonable fit with the interests of couple and family researchers because of the obvious importance of healthy and stable parental and family relationships to child development and welfare. Comments from the public and professionals were invited by NICHD, and we submitted our statements through Craig Fisher, PsyD, APA’s senior legislative and federal affairs official responsible for relations with the NIMH and NICHD.

The comments we submitted were based in part of on a search using the NIH RePORT system to illustrate recent funding priorities with regard to funding of couple and family research. This search revealed that very few NICHD projects (1.2 percent) funded since 2016 focus on the family unit and processes of the family that lead to important child and adolescent outcomes. Research on these highly important factors is dwarfed by the number of projects that focus on genetic, genomic and other biological factors in child and human development. Biological processes are of course important to research, but downward pressures on funding should not also lead to a narrowing of focus when other factors have been shown to be important to child development. Couple and family processes are not explicitly reflected as important components in child outcomes in the proposed NICHD strategic plan.

Almost completely missing in the NICHD portfolio and in the proposed NICHD strategic draft plan is a focus on the health and status of couples and families themselves. The quality and stability of family relationships have profound impacts on overall physical health, mental health, economic security and child health and wellbeing. Even studies of couples’ relationships on parenting represent a very small number of currently funded projects (< 1 percent). The processes by which couples become distressed, stay distressed or dissolve are important areas of study, even if the primary outcome of any specific study is not a child outcome. These topics are worthy of a greater investment because of our scientific understanding that all family members are likely to have negative outcomes when the parents’ relationship does poorly. We made the argument that these areas of research should have greater importance as reflected in the strategic plan and in the number of grants and dollars allocated for these topics. 

The good news is that despite the number of projects being low, our review using the NIH RePORT system did provide evidence that there is some limited opportunity for researchers to obtain funding for couple of and family projects. Examples of recently funded grants include the following: “Culture, Family Process and Developmental Outcomes in Asian American Youth,” PI: Choi, Y.; “Families Improving Together (FIT) For Weight Loss”, PI: Wilson, D.K.; and, “Time Use Across the Life Course: Multigenerational Family Health and Well-Being” PI: Sayer, L.C.  Thus, this extremely small set of projects is nevertheless still being funded to examine the impact of couple and family projects on health and well-being. We will continue to press the importance of these projects and encourage investigators to try to make their own voices heard to advance the health of families throughout the U.S.