Looking Forward: NIH Behavioral and Social Sciences Research in 2022

I am excited to write my first blog as the Acting Director for the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. We will miss Dr. Bill Riley’s leadership but the strong foundation he laid and the fantastic people that remain in the office and at NIH, will help ensure that his parting vision that “the next generation of behavioral and social science researchers will advance the field in ways I cannot even imagine” comes to fruition. I am pleased to have the opportunity to play a part in achieving this vision and keeping the research momentum going at the NIH. The new year is a good time to reflect on where we are going so I will use my first blog to briefly reflect on the past year but mostly focus on some of what we hope to achieve in 2022.

With the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the heightened spotlight on the considerable health inequities in our nation, and the divisive discourse about science with amplified streams of misinformation, 2021 was a year of many research, societal, and public health challenges. These challenges also highlighted the ways the behavioral and social sciences can and will continue to meaningfully inform how we address some of the most important health issues of our time. We will maintain our focus on the bedrocks of NIH research such as understanding the mechanisms of behavior change and social influence, developing and testing ways to initiate and maintain behavioral change, and understanding how these processes work in a variety of populations and socio-environmental contexts over the life course. We will focus on how the behavioral and social sciences can inform the prevention and treatment of acute and chronic disease, alleviate suffering, and maximize wellbeing. While at the same time expanding how we approach the way we conduct and disseminate research.

We need to employ innovative methods and engage populations and end users in research in ways that allow for more rapid learning and application of our findings. We cannot wait a decade or two for our traditional approaches to provide answers to the problems of today. This means breaking down silos between disciplines and better integration of the behavioral and social sciences within the broader research enterprise. If the current COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything it is that we cannot wait until we are ready to roll out new vaccines, devices or therapeutics to assess and consider how to address attitudes, perceptions, and social influences that will affect adoption. These lessons are not new as we have seen human factors result in delays in adoption of other lifesaving advances such as the closed loop devices in diabetes care or consistent challenges with medication and treatment regimen adherence. We need more bi-directional interaction between use-inspired basic science, intervention science and implementation science to be sure we are asking the right questions and considering potential barriers to adoption and population or context specific challenges much earlier in the research process. Finally, issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be considered from day one and not wait for tailoring and adaption at the implementation science stage of research.

With these lessons and new directions in mind, OBSSR will be moving into 2022 with big goals and a lot to accomplish. We will be working to update our 2017-2021 Strategic Plan and publish the next iteration by the end of 2022. I expect that the three major themes will remain intact: 1) Improve the synergy of basic and applied behavioral and social sciences research; 2) Enhance and promote the research infrastructure, methods, and measures needed to support a more cumulative and integrated approach to behavioral and social sciences research; and 3) Facilitate the adoption of behavioral and social sciences research findings in health research and in practice. It is what we focus on and how we accomplish these aims where there will be important updates. We will also be looking toward new areas to tackle that solve cross-disciplinary and cross-disease challenges that would be difficult for one Institute or Center to address on their own. We will be looking at ways to build a more cumulative and efficient approach to knowledge generation, organization, and reuse across diseases and disciplines through the development, curation, and dissemination of behavioral and social science vocabularies, taxonomies, and ontologies. This includes the need to link to ontological frameworks in the biomedical and data science disciplines to facilitate better integration. We will also be increasing our focus on how the behavioral and social sciences can inform how we conduct research including building trust in science, informing approaches to engage study participants meaningfully and inclusively in research recruitment, retention, and the dissemination of research findings.

These are just a few of the big challenges we want to work on in 2022 in addition to continuing our existing initiatives and our ongoing work to coordinate and integrate the behavioral and social sciences at the NIH. The road ahead involves addressing many longstanding and somewhat intractable challenges to how we integrate behavioral and social science and how we conduct science. I am not naive enough to think we will solve them right away but working with the tremendous NIH team to address these challenges keeps me excited to show up to work each day. As I believe Tom Hanks said in a League of Their Own, “It's supposed to be hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it.”