Historical Perspective of OBSSR

The behavioral and social sciences were part of the NIH mission long before the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences (OBSSR) was established, but the OBSSR, during the past 26 years, has been instrumental to accelerating the behavioral and social sciences relevant to health, coordinating these sciences within the NIH research enterprise, and increasing the integration of these sciences at the NIH.

Last year, as part of the commemoration of our 25th anniversary, we developed a historical record of the OBSSR’s key events, accomplishments, and leadership during the Office’s 25 years of existence. We also recently updated our website and migrated it to a new platform, which allowed us to add a graphical timeline of OBSSR’s history. If you are unfamiliar with the OBSSR, this history timeline provides a quick timeline summary of some of the Office’s major efforts. If you who have worked with us for decades, the timeline is an enjoyable reminiscence of the people and events that have made the OBSSR an important and valued coordination office of the NIH. We will soon be adding recent accomplishments and activities such as our work in firearms violence prevention, COVID-19 impacts, and behavioral ontologies to the timeline.

Looking back through the OBSSR’s history, it is apparent how often the Office served as an incubator for new and emerging areas of behavioral and social sciences that eventually became more fully integrated into the funding of NIH Institutes and Centers. The OBSSR-led funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) on mind-body interactions (1999), youth violence prevention (2000), medication adherence (2000), sociocultural dimensions of health (2001), education and health (2003), health literacy (2004), community-based participatory research (2004), health disparities (2007), systems science (2008), mobile health (2015), population health (2016), and intensive longitudinal analysis (2017) and data science (2018) stimulated emerging fields of research that were broadly adopted by the NIH ICs. Stimulating emerging areas of behavioral and social sciences, along with the integration of these sciences into the NIH mission and the training of the next generation of behavioral and social science researchers, has been among the key objectives of OBSSR during its 25+ year history.

What will this historical timeline look like 25 years from now? As digital information on human behavior and social systems continues to grow exponentially, signals in these data could predict and forecast behavior at the individual and population level, allowing behavior change experts and policymakers to preempt unhealthy behaviors before they occur. Neuroscience and behavioral and social sciences could become more integrated, allowing us to observe the complex interactions between the brain and the environment in real time and in natural settings. More intensive and comprehensive study of systems level interventions is needed to address violence, structural racism, health disparities, and a range of societal factors that influence health.

Over the next 25 years, these and many more new behavioral and social science challenges will emerge. Although none of us can know with any certainty what those emerging areas will be, based on its past track record, the OBSSR will continue to identify emerging areas of behavioral and social sciences relevant to the NIH mission and help nurture these emerging areas until they can become more fully integrated at the NIH.