Why This Top Funder Has Put Mental Health on its Radar

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation continues to expand its search for evidence-based solutions to pressing social problems, but it's also keeping the focus on the root practices that generate strong evidence in the first place.

Most recently, LJAF posted a request for letters of interest from organizations and scholars "with innovative ideas for how to improve the state of mental health research, including clinical psychology and psychiatry research."

Mental health is one of the most pervasive health issues in this country, and one of the most traditionally underfunded. There's plenty of room for new funders in this space, and it's especially welcome that LJAF has taken on the cause, not only because its support may improve mental health, but because it may improve the science that so many decisions are based upon.

Clinical psychology, LJAF pointed out, is behind the curve when it comes to the use of evidence-based treatment. And currently, it adds, "most clinical psychology trials are not registered, despite the fact that registration is a legal requirement for drugs and devices that are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration."

As a result, we've seen irreproducible psychiatric drug studies, which should be a red flag, but hasn't always been. People shouldn't be given drugs without solid science.

LJAF says they're particularly interested in "strategies for incentivizing the registration of trials and the full reporting of results through ClinicalTrials.gov, encouraging greater sharing of data and code, and eliciting the disclosure of information about trials that is normally hidden (e.g., protocols and clinical study reports)."

LJAF is not strictly a health-oriented funder, but tackles a number of program areas, including criminal justice, education and others. What's perhaps most important to keep in mind is its leadership on improving public policy and science itself. It continues to invest in much-needed improvements to the very scientific method that's supposed to be at the root of modern understanding and action.

Inside Philanthropy started writing a couple of years ago about LJAF's pioneering work to weed out secretive and shoddy science, and to increase rigor, reliability and transparency.

Related:Why This Funder is Spending Big Money to Clean Up Bad Research

The quality of the studies journalists and the rest of us are so quick to quote—more specifically, the strength of the conclusions that can be drawn from studies—has been increasingly called into question. Consider the recent revelations that the sugar industry funded researchers in the 1960s to demonize saturated fat, while downplaying links between sugar and heart disease: The distorting effects of those sciency-sounding narratives are still with us, decades later.  

The processes of science itself are a good thing for big funders like LJAF to connect with their funding. It has the potential both to call out bogus narratives that have no basis in science (e.g., "vaccines cause autism"); it can also lead to better science done faster.