On June 10, Congress creates the OBSSR to identify, coordinate, and promote behavioral and social science research projects at the NIH and beyond. Its founding demonstrates growing public acceptance that behavioral and social science factors greatly impact public health.
Commemorating 25 Years of the OBSSR: A History in Milestones
Congress Establishes the OBSSR
The OBSSR Opens its Doors
The OBSSR officially opens its doors within the Office of the NIH Director. The Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Coordinating Committee (BSSR-CC) forms the same year to advise the Director of the OBSSR and foster communication and coordination with NIH staff and external partners in the field of behavioral and social sciences research.
Dr. Norman B. Anderson Appointed Director of the OBSSR (1995–2000)
Ask not what NIH can do for behavioral and social sciences. Ask what behavioral and social sciences research can do for NIH.
Norman B. Anderson becomes OBSSR’s first director. Previously a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, Dr. Anderson specializes in intersections between health and behavior, with a particular focus on racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic health disparities.
Under his leadership, the OBSSR articulates its priorities. As the OBSSR’s first leader, Dr. Anderson champions the integration of behavioral and social sciences research across the NIH. The OBSSR hosts its first conference and releases its first strategic plan (in 1997) to address the critical behavioral and social science factors affecting public health. The OBSSR defines behavioral and social science research with input from a diversity of fields, laying the foundation for its role as the backbone of the behavioral and social sciences at the NIH.
Educational Workshops in Interdisciplinary Research
The OBSSR issues a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement in 1997, and again in 1998, for the development of short-term educational workshops for social, behavioral, and biomedical researchers in the early stages of their careers. Promoting interdisciplinary approaches, these workshops aim to help participants develop cross-disciplinary collaborations.
First Strategic Plan Revealed
OBSSR Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research releases its first strategic plan, which identifies three main priorities: (1) improve research and training in the behavioral and social sciences; (2) cultivate interdisciplinary research by integrating biobehavioral perspectives in all areas of NIH research; and (3) enhance communication within the field and with the public.
Disease Prevention Through Behavior Change
The OBSSR issues FOAs enacted in 1998 and 2003 to test whether theoretical models and practical interventions are effective for creating positive, long-term behavior changes. In particular, researchers study poor diet and exercise, alcohol abuse, and tobacco use, the leading causes of poor health and premature death.
Focus on Mind/Body Interactions and Health
The OBSSR leads a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement to establish the Centers for Mind/Body Interactions and Health to encourage and advance interdisciplinary projects—each designed to focus on relationships between the mind and body in disease and health. Subsequent FOAs in this field are released in 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007.
Research on Child Neglect
Child neglect can have long-term health and behavioral consequences. Seeking to promote the development of research programs into child neglect, the OBSSR issues a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement in 1999 and again in 2001. The FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement aims to build partnerships between researchers studying child health, education, and juvenile justice and those working with child neglect and abuse research.
Development of Interventions for Youth Violence
The OBSSR and NIH advance intervention research to improve human health. The OBSSR issues a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement soliciting behavioral intervention research focused on youth violence prevention.
Interventions to Improve Adherence to Pharmacological Treatment Regimens
A focus of the OBSSR and NIH is to support intervention research to improve human health. With this view in mind, the OBSSR issues a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement soliciting behavioral intervention research focused on ways to improve adherence to long-term medicine regimens.
Dr. Peter Kaufmann Appointed Acting Director of the OBSSR (2000)
OBSSR has been the backbone of behavioral and social sciences research at NIH.
Peter Kaufmann becomes Acting Director of the OBSSR after a decade as the Chief of NHLBI National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute ’s Behavioral Medicine Branch. Dr. Kaufmann encourages OBSSR staff to use their diverse subject backgrounds and abilities, enabling the team to concentrate on and strengthen aspects of behavioral and social sciences research at NIH.
Social and Cultural Dimensions of Health
The NIH holds the “Toward Higher Levels of Analysis: Progress and Promise in Research on Social and Cultural Dimensions of Health” conference, sponsored by the OBSSR. The conference focuses on building and employing social science research to improve the population’s health. The OBSSR leads related FOAs in 2001, 2004, and 2006.
The OBSSR Holds Inaugural Summer Institute
In collaboration with the NHLBI National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute , the OBSSR holds its first annual Summer Institute on Randomized Behavioral Clinical Trials. The institute trains researchers and health professionals on how to conduct studies that divide participants into groups by chance, allowing researchers to review different treatments or interventions fairly.
Dr. Raynard S. Kington Appointed Director of the OBSSR (2000–2003)
OBSSR is constantly identifying opportunities . . . for those areas of behavioral and social science knowledge where a nudge of some sort could promote the scientific advance in a way that ultimately gets us to treatments and cures and prevention faster.
Raynard S. Kington becomes OBSSR’s director after serving as the Director of the Division of Health Examination Statistics at the CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ’s National Center for Health Statistics. As director, Dr. Kington examines the links between health and education. This work ranges from micro to macro levels of analysis: from how education shapes neural pathways in the brain to how it affects an individual’s economic status and overall health.
Dr. Kington also prioritizes studies on implicit racial bias and its impact on patient care at individual and structural levels. These studies and the conversations surrounding them reflect OBSSR’s larger mission: to demonstrate the critical role of behavioral and social science in clarifying complex health-related questions.
New Horizons in Health
The NRC National Research Council , in collaboration with the OBSSR, publishes “New Horizons in Health: An Integrative Approach.” This consensus report details ways in which the NIH can use behavioral and social sciences research to address contemporary health needs and outcomes on national and global scales.
Health and Behavior
The IOM Institute of Medicine , in collaboration with the OBSSR, publishes “Health and Behavior: The Interplay of Biological, Behavioral, and Societal Influences.” This consensus report presents findings on links between health and behavior, how social environments impact these behaviors, and how to enhance health through adjusting behavior and improving personal relationships.
Methodology and Measurement
The OBSSR issues a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement focused on developing and enhancing the quality and power of data in health-related behavioral and social sciences. Researchers are asked to explore how to improve methodologies in research design, measurement, and data synthesis. This FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement is reissued in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2016, and 2017.
Pathways Linking Education to Health
The OBSSR encourages investigation of formal schooling’s impact on overall health by issuing a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement . In 2014, the OBSSR holds a related meeting called “Education and Health: New Frontiers.” The meeting minutes are included in the 2015 NAS National Academy of Sciences report “Exploring Opportunities for Collaboration Between Health and Education to Improve Population Health: Workshop Summary.” The OBSSR issues related FOAs “Education and Health: New Frontiers” in 2016 and 2018.
Dr. Virginia S. Cain Appointed Acting Director of the OBSSR (2003–2005)
Keeping the behavioral and social sciences on the radar of NIH and the leadership, . . . and the impact of behavioral and social science and the contribution that it can make to understanding health and healthcare, are major contributions of the OBSSR.
A veteran researcher at the OBSSR and ORWH Office of Research on Women’s Health , Virginia S. Cain becomes the OBSSR’s acting director. Dr. Cain ensures that behavioral and social sciences research is prioritized in the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research, which helps define NIH’s strategic plan. She also protects NIH funding for behavioral and social science grants, including those for AIDS treatment and prevention.
Understanding and Promoting Health Literacy
The OBSSR releases FOAs to stimulate research in health literacy—the capacity of individuals to understand and act on information to improve or sustain their health. These FOAs examine how health literacy connects to health disparities and how technology can bridge the knowledge gap. These FOAs are reissued in 2006, 2010, and 2013 and inform a 2011 IOM Institute of Medicine report.
Strengthening Behavioral and Social Science in Medical School Education
In collaboration with the OBSSR, the NAS National Academy of Sciences publishes “Improving Medical Education: Enhancing the Behavioral and Social Science Content of Medical School Curricula.” In October 2004, the OBSSR issues FOAs aimed at bolstering behavioral and social sciences research in medical education. The OBSSR releases related FOAs in 2010 and 2011.
Community Participation in Research
Community-based participatory research allows people with great stakes in a community’s health to work alongside scientific researchers to improve health and address related disparities. The OBSSR issues a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement in 2004, and again in 2008, to stimulate joint involvement of researchers and communities in conducting health research.
Dr. David Abrams Appointed Director of the OBSSR (2005–2008)
We get a lot of applause for all the breakthroughs in biomedical research . . . , we get some applause for the breakthroughs in psychosocial, epidemiology, and public health research . . . If the one takes place without the other, it’s the sound of one hand clapping . . . Imagine how much more applause we would get if both hands were clapping, on the one side the biomedical sciences, and on the other side collaborating with the behavioral and social sciences.
David Abrams becomes the OBSSR’s director after a long tenure as a professor of Community Health, Psychiatry, and Human Behavior at Brown University Medical School. Under his leadership, the OBSSR publishes a strategic prospectus. Dr. Abrams prioritizes systems science—studying the world as a series of systems interacting with one another—and transdisciplinary team science. His efforts involve focusing on major chronic diseases that are not easily categorized into biomedical or psychosocial realms but rather result from interactions between them.
Dr. Abrams also encourages community-building efforts and provides spaces for staff to generate ideas about how to enhance the mission of the behavioral and social sciences within the NIH community. He establishes a “kitchen cabinet,” holding weekly meetings with behavioral and social sciences programming staff across the NIH to garner advice. The group builds a sense of camaraderie, discussing challenges the OBSSR faces and ways to work together more effectively.
Social Work Practice and Concepts in Health
The OBSSR releases FOAs in 2005, 2006, and 2007 that promote the development of research on observed intersections between social work and positive health impacts on people with medical conditions and behavioral disorders. They aim to analyze and enhance the effectiveness of social work services.
The OBSSR Holds First Matilda White Riley Lecture
The OBSSR creates an annual distinguished scholar lecture to honor Dr. Matilda White Riley, who pioneered the integration of behavioral and social sciences research into biomedicine. An academic sociologist, Dr. Riley also developed and directed grant programs on behavioral and social sciences research at the NIA National Institute on Aging . The event expands in 2016 to highlight early-career scientists with the Early State Investigator Paper Awards.
The OBSSR Hosts 10th Anniversary Event
OBSSR celebrates its first decade, hosting an event which showcases its history, accomplishments, and goals, as well as its major contributions to behavioral and social sciences research across areas of disease reduction and health promotion.
Moving Beyond the Nature-Nurture Debate
In collaboration with the OBSSR, the IOM Institute of Medicine publishes “Genes, Behavior, and the Social Environment: Moving Beyond the Nature-Nurture Debate.” This report reviews work related to interactions between genes and environment, encouraging the examination of multiple public health factors at once. In 2008, the OBSSR issues FOAs aimed at understanding the combined effect of biological and social factors on health.
A Prospectus for the Future
The OBSSR releases its strategic prospectus (second strategic plan), which provides recommendations within the field and for public health progress as a whole. The prospectus contains four priorities: (1) “next-generation” basic, or life, science; (2) research between and across different fields; 3) systems science, or science understanding life as a series of related systems; and (4) problem-focused research for population impact.
Symposia Series on Systems Science and Health
In collaboration with the CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other NIH agencies, the OBSSR produces a four-part “Symposia Series on Systems Science and Health.” This lecture series—along with FOAs released in 2008, 2011, and 2014—encourages the use of simulation methods and dynamic modeling in public health research and practice.
Understanding and Reducing Health Disparities
Rural, low-income, and certain racial and ethnic populations generally experience poorer health than the overall U.S. population. To stimulate research on the causes of and solutions to health and disability disparities in the United States, the OBSSR issues a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement focused on this topic. This FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement is reissued in 2010 and 2013.
Conference on the Science of Dissemination and Implementation in Health
The OBSSR, in collaboration with other institutes, organizes the inaugural trans-NIH “Annual Conference on the Science of Dissemination and Implementation in Health.” This conference reflects the OBSSR’s larger commitment to bridging the divide between public health research, policy, and practice.
Dr. Christine Bachrach Appointed Acting Director of the OBSSR (2008–2010)
OBSSR (is) . . . a uniter of NIH institutes around behavioral and social science issues, having a small budget . . . to nudge things along, to seed ideas, and having a voice.
Christine Bachrach becomes the OBSSR’s acting director following a long tenure at the Demographic and Behavioral Science Branch of the NICHD National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Center for Population Research. Under Dr. Bachrach’s leadership, the OBSSR organizes institute directors, program leaders, and working groups to create OppNet NIH Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network , a fruitful interdisciplinary funding initiative launched in 2009.
Technological Innovations for Interdisciplinary Research
The OBSSR issues FOAs encouraging methods for incorporating behavioral and social sciences into interdisciplinary research using technological innovations. This effort builds on 2007’s NIH Roadmap, an initiative that emphasizes the need for efficient transferring of basic research into actual human practice and positive health impacts.
Institute on Systems Science and Health
In collaboration with the CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , the OBSSR organizes its first annual institute on systems science and health. The institute’s purpose is to provide students with an overview of systems science methods and training. Students represent a variety of disciplines and education levels—from predoctoral to full professor.
OppNet Is Created
The OBSSR facilitates the establishment of OppNet NIH Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network , a collaborative trans-NIH funding initiative. OppNet NIH Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network identifies research areas and issues FOAs to fund research projects that advance the goals of NIH institutes and centers. Over the next 10 years, it provides over $80 million to more than 100 research projects.
Dr. Deborah Olster Appointed Acting Director of the OBSSR (2010–2011)
There are still health disparities among various groups, racial, ethnic, geographic . . . figuring out how environment, broadly defined to include the social and behavioral environment, as well as the physical and chemical environments, influences gene expression, and health and disease outcomes . . . those issues are still on the table for NIH and for OBSSR.
Deborah Olster becomes the OBSSR’s acting director after serving as Deputy Director of the OBSSR and in the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation. As acting director, Dr. Olster spearheads the interdisciplinary research activities and funding opportunities included in the NIH Roadmap.
Social Networks and Their Impact on Public Health
OBSSR releases FOAs related to social network analysis and translating important social science findings into health-related behavior improvements. The former focuses on improving the science of social network structures, the latter on stimulating innovative research projects to close gaps between public health research, policy, and practice.
Dr. Robert Kaplan Appointed Director of the OBSSR (2011–2014)
What I’ve come to appreciate is that the determinants of health are much broader than we’ve ever recognized. OBSSR has really developed that message.
Robert Kaplan becomes the OBSSR’s director after serving as a professor in UCLA’s School of Public Health and School of Medicine. During his tenure, the OBSSR invests in the development of the mHealth Collaboratory, an initiative that employs mobile technologies to improve public health and prepares for next-generation technologies and research methods.
Under Dr. Kaplan’s leadership, the OBSSR also spearheads a training program to help medical schools reform their curricula to bolster behavioral and social science content. The OBSSR also holds many short courses to train early-career researchers and doctors in mHealth, dissemination and implementation methods, systems science, and more.
First Annual Training Institute for Dissemination and Implementation Research in Health (TIDIRH) Is Held
In close partnership with other NIH institutes, the OBSSR develops a training institute designed to build capacity in dissemination and implementation (D&I) research. In addition to receiving training in conducting D&I research, participants are expected to return to their home institutions and share what they learned in order to grow the field.
Addressing Chronic Health Conditions
The OBSSR issues a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement in 2011, and again in 2014, to stimulate research related to positive behavioral interventions and health outcomes for patients with coexisting chronic health conditions and diseases. In particular, they support research in primary care treatment for patients with three or more chronic health conditions.
Medication Adherence Research
Commitment to medication regimens is crucial to producing positive health outcomes. In collaboration with the NIH Adherence Network and other NIH agencies, the OBSSR issues FOAs for innovative research to encourage patients to follow prescribed medication instructions. These FOAs are reissued in 2014 and 2018.
U.S. Health in International Perspective
In collaboration with the OBSSR, the NRC National Research Council and the IOM Institute of Medicine publish the consensus report “U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health.” Conducted at the OBSSR’s request, the study compares life expectancy and health in the United States with those of 16 other wealthy democratic countries. It finds that U.S. life expectancy and health do not compare well and require a societal commitment to improve.
Short Courses on Innovative Methodologies
The OBSSR issues a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement in 2013, and again in 2018, to promote educational courses that prepare students to meet biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research needs. These FOAs also serve to stimulate public health education and outreach geared toward groups underrepresented in behavioral and medical research.
Dr. William T. Riley Appointed Acting Director (2014) and Then Director of the OBSSR (2015)
I cannot imagine a more exciting time than now to be a behavioral and social science researcher. Advances in technology, open data, and big data analytics are providing new and temporally dense information in large and varied samples. Transdisciplinary efforts by diverse disciplines, including genetics, neuroscience, computer science, and engineering, are reinvigorating the behavioral and social sciences with novel approaches and methodologies and are cross-pollinating behavioral and social sciences research approaches into their disciplines as well.
William T. Riley becomes the OBSSR’s acting director, and then director, after serving for more than a decade within the NIMH National Institute of Mental Health , the NHLBI National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute , and the NCI National Cancer Institute . He specializes in the application of digital technologies, engineering, and computer science to the behavioral and social sciences in order to improve public health research and outcomes.
Under Dr. Riley’s leadership, the OBSSR expands its training initiatives. In particular, the K18 award provides funding opportunities for established scientists to gain experience in disciplines beyond their primary research fields. The OBSSR releases its third and current strategic plan, which expands on scientific priorities by providing a list of functions central to the OBSSR’s mission and advancement.
New Dimensions of Electronic Health Records
In collaboration with the OBSSR, the NAM National Academy of Medicine (formerly IOM Institute of Medicine ) publishes the consensus study report “Capturing Social and Behavioral Domains and Measures in Electronic Health Records.” This two-phase report advocates for the incorporation of social and behavioral dimensions of health into EHRs, which provide crucial information about patients to their providers. The OBSSR organizes an NIH meeting on this topic in 2018.
Mobilizing Research Through mHealth
Ever-changing technology plays a part in health management. The OBSSR issues a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement to help researchers effectively evaluate mobile and wireless (mHealth) technologies. The goal is to identify sustainable applications and spaces that can facilitate mHealth research across various settings, studies, health conditions, and populations. The OBSSR releases a related FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement in 2017.
The OBSSR Holds 20th Anniversary Research Symposium
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the OBSSR holds a research symposium, “Healthier Lives Through Behavioral and Social Sciences.” The symposium showcases the OBSSR’s history, accomplishments, and goals as well as its most impactful research strides and innovative approaches to improving public health.
Linked Health Factors and Their Outcomes
The OBSSR leads FOAs focused on population health interventions to stimulate research on the ways different factors relate to each other and lead to health outcomes. These FOAs study how individual, provider, community, and environmental factors can link together to improve public health and treatment efficacy.
OBSSR Holds Its First Director’s Webinar Series
The OBSSR organizes the first of its Director’s Webinar Series, aimed at communicating behavioral and social sciences research findings to a wider audience. During this webinar, called “keepin’ it REAL: Translating Theory and Practice in Health Message Design and Evaluation Research,” Dr. Michael Hecht and Dr. Michelle Miller-Day discuss how they used a small grant to launch a far-reaching youth drug prevention program.
The OBSSR Holds Inaugural NIH BSSR Festival
At the first annual NIH Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Festival, the OBSSR and the BSSR-CC showcase noteworthy health research strides, innovations, and areas of interest. The event features presentations by NIH and external scientists hailing from diverse fields. The festival also serves to solidify research directions and coordination among various institutes and centers.
Intensive Longitudinal Analysis: Leveraging New Technologies
The OBSSR issues FOAs to develop a cooperative agreement network and Research Coordinating Center to support the Intensive Longitudinal Health Behaviors Initiative. The goal is to learn the influences of key health behaviors from data collection and analysis, assisted with real-time data from smartphones and new technologies, to suggest personalized strategies for disease reduction and prevention.
Third Strategic Plan Released
The OBSSR releases its third strategic plan, for 2017 to 2021. The plan details scientific priorities on strengthening behavioral and social sciences and interdisciplinary research structures, as well as applying findings to practice and policy. It outlines foundational processes for supporting these scientific priorities and advancing the OBSSR’s overall mission.
Setting a Course for the Future: Predoctoral Training in Advanced Data Analytics for Behavioral and Social Sciences Research
Research is ineffective if the behavioral and social sciences workforce is ill-equipped to conduct it. To that end, the OBSSR releases a FOA Funding Opportunity Announcement to support predoctoral training programs in analytics, fostering the next generation of behavioral and social sciences researchers.
Dr. Christine Hunter Appointed Acting Director (2022)
Behavioral and social factors often play a pivotal role in the prevention or mitigation of risk for diseases as well as in the management of chronic diseases and the promotion of well-being. The systematic integration of the behavioral and social sciences into the broad research mission at NIH, from fundamental discovery to implementation science, is crucial to achieving the goal of advancing human health.
Dr. Christine Hunter is the Acting Director for the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Hunter obtained her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from The University of Memphis and completed her psychology internship at Wilford Hall Medical Center. She completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Clinical Health Psychology and attained Board Certification in Clinical Health Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology. Dr. Hunter is a Captain in the U.S. Public Health Service.