Expanding the Reach and Impact of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research: OBSSR 2005–2008

As we celebrate 25 years of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR), we have asked the former Directors to reflect on their time at OBSSR. This guest blog was authored by OBSSR’s third Director, David Abrams, Ph.D.

I would like to thank Dr. Riley and his staff for this opportunity on the 25th anniversary to reflect on my time at the OBSSR. I was the Director of the Office from 2005 to 2008, coming from a long tenure as a professor of Community Health, Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and The Miriam Hospital.

Under my leadership, we developed a strategic prospectus that outlined the priority areas for the office. The process for developing that prospectus was truly a collaborative effort puling in a broad range of stakeholders, and the prospectus reflected our vision for the behavioral and social sciences at the time. We worked to develop partnerships both within and outside of the NIH to enhance the mission of the behavioral and social sciences within the NIH community. In addition to highlighting the need for “next generation” basic science and problem-focused research for maximum population impact, we worked to elevate systems science (studying the world as a complex system of multi-level influences—from cells to societies—interacting with one another over time and with short-term and long-term vicious and virtuous feedback loops) and emphasize transdisciplinary team science to understand better the causes of chronic diseases that require expertise in areas such as biomedical, psychosocial, cultural, economic, and environmental sciences among others.

To promote system science approaches, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and other NIH agencies, we produced a four-part “Symposia Series on Systems Science and Health.” This lecture series set the stage for an expansion of funding and training support that encouraged the use of simulation methods and dynamic modeling in public health research and practice, including subsequent funding announcements on Systems Science and Health in the Behavioral and Social Sciences. Among the recent and highly impactful applications of systems science to public health are the modeling of the risks (increased smoking initiation) and benefits (increased smoking cessation) from the availability of electronic cigarettes and simulations of the benefits and costs of various SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies. Our mitigation strategies to address this pandemic are inherently social and behavioral population health interventions, and dynamic modeling approaches are critical for optimizing the cost-benefit of these mitigation strategies.

Transdisciplinary research was another foci of our strategic prospectus, and to highlight the interaction of biological and psychosocial sciences, we sponsored an IOM report titled “Genes, Behavior, and the Social Environment: Moving Beyond the Nature-Nurture Debate.” This led to the development of FOAs in 2008 aimed at understanding the combined effect of biological and social factors on health (PAR-08-065, PAR-08-066, PAR-08-067). The OBSSR’s directions at that time in the transdisciplinary research and systems sciences were described in a special issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine on the Science of Team Science. Although transdisciplinary science and systems science approaches in public health are now commonplace, at the time the OBSSR generated initiatives in these areas, these were fledgling approaches with minimal adoption by public health and behavioral and social sciences research. Reflecting back, elevating these systems science and team science approaches were major contributions to the field during my time as the OBSSR Director.

The current manifestations of racial injustice protested in our communities and the exacerbations of health inequities resulting from the pandemic highlight the critical importance of health disparities. During my tenure as Director, the OBSSR issued the first NIH-wide funding announcement designed to stimulate research on the causes and solutions to health disparities in the United States (PAR-07-379, PAR-07-380). This research focused on social and behavioral determinants as the primary drivers of health disparities and laid the foundation for subsequent FOAs as well as increasing investments in health disparity research by the NIH.

In an overview to a 2006 special issue on Health Disparities and Social Inequities, I argued for a transdisciplinary pipeline from discovery to development to delivery to policy to understand and eliminate health disparities. One central challenge to such an approach was to strengthen the science of dissemination to improve adoption of evidence based science. In 2007, with colleagues across the NIH, the OBSSR organized the first annual conference on the Science of Dissemination and Implementation in Health. This conference reflected our commitment to bridge the divide between public health research, policy, and practice. Today, many NIH Institutes and Centers have dissemination and implementation research programs. As illustrated by the inconsistent implementation of pandemic mitigation strategies, evidence-based public health policy remains a challenge, but continued dissemination and implementation research provides the scientific basis to improve the adoption of evidence-based policies.

During my time as Director, the OBSSR also engaged in a number of activities to increase the outreach and visibility of the behavioral and social sciences. I created a communications position within the OBSSR to work more strategically to summarize the key research accomplishments of BSSR across the NIH. This was essential in providing the public and other stakeholders the opportunity to see the important contributions of BSSR science to health and public health. In May 2006,we held the inaugural Matilda White Riley lecture to honor Dr. Matilda White Riley, who pioneered the integration of behavioral and social sciences research into biomedical sciences. This remains one of OBSSR’s signature events, now in its 13th year. And In June 2006, I was privileged to host a 10th anniversary event for the Office which showcased OBSSR’s history, accomplishments, and goals, as well as its major contributions to behavioral and social sciences research across areas of disease reduction and health promotion.

I left the OBSSR in 2008 to pursue a wonderful opportunity as the first director of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the Legacy Foundation, a position that brought me back to my roots as a tobacco control researcher. I am proud of the work that the OBSSR did during my tenure as Director and of what the Office has accomplished since then, thanks to the ongoing dedication of OBSSR staff and the BSSR staff across the NIH.