Building a Strong Foundation: The Early Years of the OBSSR (1995–2000)

Building a Strong Foundation: The Early Years of OBSSR (1995-2000)

As we celebrate 25 years of OBSSR, we have asked the former Directors to reflect on their time at OBSSR. This guest blog was authored by OBSSR’s first Director, Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D.

During the 25th anniversary year of the OBSSR, it is my pleasure to reflect on my time as the first Director of OBSSR, from July 1995 to April 2000, having been appointed by former NIH Director Dr. Harold Varmus. In this role, I also held the title of NIH Associate Director for Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. Prior to joining NIH, I was a tenured associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center where my research focused on health disparities, especially the problem of hypertension in African Americans. I was also very active in the community of scholars interested in transdisciplinary research, especially the bio-psycho-socio-cultural model of health and illness. These prior professional experiences shaped my perspective on and approach to the work of the OBSSR.

The Office began with modest resources ($2 million budget, two staff) yet was faced with three significant challenges that had to be addressed immediately for the Office to have a solid foundation. The first challenge was that the Office was congressionally mandated to develop a definition of behavioral and social sciences research (BSSR) to be used henceforth to assess NIH funding levels for these fields. This was a complex task given the breath of the field, which ranges from the study of epigenetics to societal influences on health, and which represents a variety of disciplines and scientific methodologies. The second challenge was that, given that the Office was new, there was no plan of action or framework for advancing BSSR across NIH. The third challenge was that the existence of the Office was relatively unknown in the behavioral and social scientific communities nationally and even inside NIH.

One thing that was pivotal in the OBSSR’s ability to successfully address these challenges was that we recognized that our greatest resource was the behavioral and social sciences community itself. For example, to develop the definition of BSSR we organized a number of focus groups of BSSR scientists from around the country to provide their perspectives on this, ultimately arriving at a definition that NIH and the OBSSR used for over 20 years.

To address the challenge of not having a comprehensive plan of action, we organized the Office’s first strategic planning process involving over 70 BSSR scientists, science administrators, and representatives of science organizations. The resulting strategic plan, released in 1997, helped guide the work of the OBSSR for the next decade. In addition to the strategic plan, it was important that the Office develop and communicate a scientifically credible framework for better integrating the behavioral and social sciences within the NIH biomedical research enterprise and for the promotion of transdisciplinary research. One such effort (of many) is outlined here.

Finally, to address the challenge of the relative invisibility of the OBSSR at NIH and nationally, we recognized that a key resource we had on the NIH campus was the 400-plus self-identified BSSR health science administrators working across all the Institutes and Centers (ICs) of NIH. To tap into this community, we formed the NIH Behavioral and Sciences Research Coordinating Committee, comprised of appointees from all NIH ICs, which was designed to enhance information exchange, communication, integration, and coordination of behavioral and social sciences research/training activities at the NIH. This and other activities helped to galvanize the support and enthusiasm for the OBSSR within the BSSR community at NIH and by extension, to extramural BSSR scientists nationally.

With these foundations in place, the OBSSR and the NIH BSSR community pursued a number of other important activities in its first five years. Among the accomplishments:

  • The OBSSR released its first funding opportunity announcements, calling for the development of short-term interdisciplinary educational workshops for social, behavioral, and biomedical researchers in the early stages of their careers (Educational Workshops in Interdisciplinary Research). These workshops developed cross-disciplinary collaborations and fostered interdisciplinary research approaches. These workshops served as a model for the OBSSR Summer Training Institutes that continue today under the R25 grant mechanism.
  • The OBSSR issued a series of Requests for Applications (RFAs) to assess the effectiveness of theoretical and practical interventions for creating positive, long-term behavior changes (Disease Prevention Through Behavior Change). Grants funded under these RFAs studied interventions to address diet and physical activity, alcohol abuse, and tobacco use.
  • The OBSSR led RFAs 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. These centers served as incubators that encouraged more mind/body research at the NIH (e.g., within the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health).

There were many other accomplishments during those exciting first five years of OBSSR, and these accomplishments were possible due to committed BSSR staff, not only at OBSSR but across the NIH.

After the OBSSR, I served as a professor of Health and Social Behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health, and then had the honor of serving for 13 years as the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Vice President of the American Psychological Association and as the editor-in-chief of American Psychologist. Currently, I am Assistant Vice President for Research and Academic Affairs and Professor of Social Work at Florida State University (FSU), where I also created and direct FSU’s Faculty Leadership Development Program.

As I reflect on my time at NIH and the OBSSR, and the continued accomplishments of the Office since my departure, I am proud to have played a role in building a foundation of credibility, visibility, stability, and activities that helped the Office thrive. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve as the first OBSSR Director, and I look forward to what the Office will achieve in its next 25 years.