While national drug abuse and the drugs that are commonly abused continue to change, Monitoring the Future will continue to study their trends with the $35 million recently awarded to them.
Monitoring the Future is a 38-year-old investigator-initiated research project headed by the Institute for Social Research at the University, according to Principal Investigator Dr. Lloyd Johnston, a distinguished senior research scientist at the University.
“That means we came up with the idea,” Johnston said. “The government didn’t come up with the idea.”
MTF is a long-term study focusing on behavior and attitudes of citizens recorded through surveys given to adolescents along with follow-up surveys over time, according to their website.
The $35 million awarded will be spread out over the next five years to continue MTF and pay for its employees, their travel to the schools they survey and the surveys themselves, which amount to around 90,000, according to Johnston.
He explained that at the end of a funding term, they must reapply for competitive grants and can’t ask for more than a 10-percent increase from the amount spent the previous year.
“The National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the NIH (National Institutes of Health), took over full funding after the first year so we have to go back to that agency once every five years … and ask for a continuation of funding,” Johnston said.
Johnston added that only about 15 or 20 percent of applicants receive funding.
“We never take it for granted — we always have to do a lot of work on the proposal.”
Each year for the next five years, Johnston and his team will continue to survey 50,000 respondents — specifically eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders — from about 400 schools that are selected randomly to represent the national population.
Johnston said while the surveys cover an array of topics, there is strong emphasis on drug abuse including questions pertaining to use of substances including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, steroids and prescription drugs. Other topics covered in the surveys range from race relations and gender roles to victimization and delinquency.
“(Drug abuse) is the heart of the study,” he said. “But then what we do is every year we have a 12-grade graduating class and we take a sub-sample of that from 2,400 people and then follow them over time … and contact them through the mail and ask them to complete a similar survey.”
Johnston said MTF has now followed a group of people through age 50 whom they first surveyed as high school seniors. He explained that they carry out these extensive follow-up surveys to see how people’s views change over time on drug usage and other topics.
The substance abuse section of the surveys is the most “dynamic,” making it unique, according to Johnston.
“(MTF) provides a window into the somewhat secretive world of substance abuse for young people and young adults,” Johnston said. “It’s quite respected for its accuracy.”
Johnston said each December, MTF gives a press conference in Washington D.C. where federal government officials are often found, sometimes including the president. He added that several books and hundreds of articles have been written from MTF’s findings over the years.
“What’s most unusual is we do quite a bit with the media,” he said.
MTF also produces three or four monographs every year, which showcase trends of drug usage and attitudes toward using.
“This is probably the most relied-upon resource of information on what kinds of substance abuse problems are occurring among adolescents,” Johnston said. “Another population we cover very well is college students, and now we have 31 years of data on American college students.”
Johnston said the biggest change to MTF was adding eighth- and 10th-grade students to the mix in 1991, allowing them to look at early adolescence, which MTF has found is a significant time when drug abuse can start.
“Another change has been in the substances that we cover,” he said. “There was a large number in the beginning … but we’ve added a lot because kids keep discovering new drugs to abuse.”
Johnston said he attributes the necessity of the program to the number of years under its belt, allowing MTF to be able to characterize a broad portion of the population they have been following for years.
“Many people look forward to the results every year,” he said. “We hope it continues beyond the careers of the original investigators.”
In a June 11 press release, U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D–Mich.) expressed his strong support of the continuation of MTF through the funds awarded to it.
“I am thrilled to have the opportunity to meet with such an esteemed researcher who makes a positive difference right here in Southeast Michigan,” Dingell said in the release.
Dingell also applauded MTF for trying to understand young people and help them make good life decisions.
“Dr. Johnston and his research team provide useful research to improve the health of our adolescents. His work has given our nation and the world critical information and fundamental guidance to improve our fight against drug abuse,” Dingell said in the release.
ISR Director James Jackson was also featured in the press release, saying the ISR is happy to house MTF at the University. He added that they are excited to have received further funding.
“We are committed to conducting social science research that is in the public interest, and the support we receive from federal agencies remains critical to our ability to make contributions to the public good,” Jackson said in the press release.