BSSR Definition

When the United States Congress created the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health, it mandated that the Office develop a standard definition of the field to assess and monitor funding in this area. The definition developed in 1996 was revised in 2019 based on input from the behavioral and social sciences research community.

Behavioral and social sciences research at the National Institutes of Health involves the systematic study of behavioral1 and social2 phenomena relevant to health3.

1“Behavioral phenomena” refers to the observable actions of individuals or groups and to mental phenomena such as knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, motivations, perceptions, cognitions, and emotions.

2“Social phenomena” refers to the interactions between and among individuals, and to the characteristics, structures, and functions of social groups and institutions, such as families, communities, schools, and workplaces, as well as the physical, economic, cultural, and policy environments in which social and behavioral phenomena occur.

3”Health” refers to state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (as per WHO).

Behavioral and social science researchers study the complex interplay between biological, behavioral, social, and environmental processes, including phenomena that occur both within the organism (e.g., genetics, neurobiology, emotion, perception, cognition) and external to the organism (e.g., environment, social relationships, societal factors, culture, policy). Understanding the reciprocal influences of these internal and external processes is key to understanding how these processes interact to alter health, and for developing efficacious interventions to improve health. This broad approach to the multilevel and multi-modal influences of behavior, from genetic to societal, provides the behavioral and social sciences with a unique perspective on the dynamic interactions that can influence health outcomes of individuals and populations.

The behavioral and social sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) include a diverse set of research disciplines that have in common the study of behavior and/or social phenomena relevant to health. The multi-disciplinary nature of behavioral and social sciences research (BSSR) is both a challenge and an opportunity. The disciplines contributing to the behavioral and social sciences often have different scientific approaches, methods, definitions, vocabularies, theories, and hypotheses. This broad and complex research landscape, however, provides a rich fundamental and applied knowledge base to understand behavioral and social phenomena and how these processes and mechanisms impact health and well-being.

For the purposes of monitoring the behavioral and social sciences at the NIH, a project (grant application, funded grant, contract, etc.) is considered a BSSR project if one or more of its specific aims include understanding and/or modifying behavioral or social phenomena relevant to health. Typically, the key variables of interest in BSSR projects (e.g., dependent or independent variables, predicted or predictor variables) are behavioral or social phenomenon.

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