Expanding the Role of the Behavioral and Social Sciences in Population Health: OBSSR 2011–2014

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

It was a great honor to serve as the fourth OBSSR Director between 2011 to 2014. I came from academia having served as a professor and administrator at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, Los Angeles. For 35 years I had been continuously funded by the NIH and, like most grantees, I had been through the struggles and mood swings associated with keeping a research enterprise alive. I brought that empathy for the grantee with me to Bethesda.

I was humbled to serve following three very distinguished OBSSR directors and a series of exceptionally talented acting directors. All three of the previous directors (Norman Anderson, Raynard Kington, and David Abrams) were friends and colleagues who I had admired for years. During one job interview visit, I had a particularly memorable breakfast with Drs. Anderson and Abrams. They candidly and accurately forecasted the considerable challenges and opportunities facing the Office. In addition to the directors, former acting directors, including Deborah Olster, Christine Bachrach, and Peter Kaufman, provided unwavering support and guidance.

During my years at the Office, we implemented a strategic prospectus that outlined the priority areas for the Office. The prospectus used suggestions from a broad range of stakeholders. We worked to develop partnerships both within and outside of the NIH to enhance the mission of the behavioral and social sciences at the NIH. At the time, we were kicking off the Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (OppNet) program. Under the able leadership of Bill Elwood, OppNet is a collaborative initiative that includes the NIH Office of the Director and the 24 Institutes and Centers (ICs) that support and administer research projects. With NIA Director Richard Hodes, I co-chaired the OppNet steering committee that identified cross-cutting basic social and behavioral research areas and created funding opportunity announcements.

In addition to highlighting the need for “next generation” basic science and problem-focused research, the OBSSR led an effort to elevate systems science. We expanded studies of complex system of multi-level influences—from cells to societies. We also expanded efforts in transdisciplinary team science to better understand the causes of chronic diseases that require expertise in areas such as biomedical, psychosocial, cultural, economic and environmental sciences among others. My years at the OBSSR coincided with a growing recognition of the importance of social determinants of health, and the OBSSR played an important role in stimulating that discussion across the NIH.

The OBSSR also coordinated the Mobile Health (mHealth) initiative to support studies using mHealth tools aimed at the improvement of effective patient–provider communication, adherence to treatment, and self-management of chronic diseases. Wendy Nilsen, who oversaw the effort, continues to partner with the OBSSR on this topic in her current role at the National Science Foundation and continues to work with the NIH on the Smart and Connected Health Initiative.

The OBSSR was particularly proud to support a series of excellent training programs. Recognizing the growing importance of dissemination and implementation science, the Office provided support for an annual conference that nearly doubled in size each year between 2009 and 2013. Our Training Institute for Dissemination and Implementation Research and Health offered intensive residential training for young scholars planning to develop research careers in implementation science. The Office also provided support for summer training programs in system science and in mHealth. In addition, we offered intensive training through the Summer Institute on Randomized Behavioral Clinical Trials.

In 2014, I left the NIH to become the chief science officer at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality but being in a sister agency allowed me to continue collaboration with the NIH. With OBSSR colleagues Mike Spittel and Daryn David, we designed a conference to envision the future of population health research. We invited the most important thought leaders in behavioral science and public health to help us think about future research opportunities. Each participant contributed an original chapter designed to steer the future in their respective fields. The proceedings were turned into a book that is free and easily accessible for students, faculty, and others interested in population science. We also sponsored several high impact reports that were completed by the National Academy of Medicine. U.S. Health in International Perspective is credited with awakening America to our declining life expectancies in relation to other wealthy countries. Capturing Social and Behavioral Domains and Measures in Electronic Health Records provides an evidence-based guide to the next generation of clinical epidemiology research.

One of the roles I enjoyed most was the opportunity to interact with scholars and public servants from a variety of other agencies. The OBSSR Director also serves as an NIH Associate Director and represents the agency in many cross governmental working groups. I served on the Intergovernmental Working Group on Health Care Quality and the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics. In addition, I served on the National Council on Science and Technology Policy as a member of the Committee on Science and co-chaired the intergovernmental working group on social, behavioral, and economic sciences. And, I served on the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences National Advisory Board for the National Science Foundation. All of these assignments allowed us to be better informed collaborators and better partners with other government agencies.

I loved being part of the NIH, but my time at the OBSSR was made special because of the colleagues in the Office. There is not enough room to mention everybody, but I owe a special debt of gratitude to Stéphane Philogene who guided me, an outsider, through the complexities of the federal government and, similarly, Deb Olster, who had served as acting director prior to my arrival and stayed on as Deputy Director. Her wisdom and attention to detail was remarkable. The staff of the OBSSR, NIH colleagues, and many others made coming to work every day a fun adventure. Also, friends of the NIH were remarkably helpful in helping me understand the interface between the federal agency, the research community, and scientific societies.

Finally, an exiting director has no say in who should follow him or her, but I had a favorite candidate—Bill Riley. I hope I speak for all previous directors in applauding the important new directions that Bill is taking the Office.

By 2016, my wife and I realized it was time to return to California. Having retired twice, once from the University of California, and a second time from the federal government, I shortly realized that retirement was another assignment I would fail. So, I have gone back to work as a faculty member at the Clinical Excellence Research Center at the Stanford University School of Medicine. But even from my perch at the opposite end of the country, I regularly look back fondly on my days at the OBSSR.