A Reflection on Public Service, Gratitude, and the Behavioral and Social Sciences

This month’s blog will be a little more personal than I have been so far. I want to reflect on public service and gratitude. I am writing this at the conclusion of the Memorial Day weekend where we honor members of the military who have died in service to the country. While Memorial Day weekend is also often filled with fun to kick-off the summer, it is an important time to reflect and be thankful. As a military veteran myself, I am deeply thankful to those who served in the military and lost their lives during that service.

This past Memorial Day weekend, I found myself thinking more broadly about gratitude and service. As I reflected, I had to acknowledge that it has been a rough few years. Among other things, we have dealt with the enormity of the lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, frightening wars abroad, ongoing damage to individuals and society from the opioid epidemic, repeated evidence of tremendous inequities and social injustice, climate related devastation, and what seems like a never-ending series of horrifying mass shootings. Other than the pandemic, these are not new issues in my lifetime. Yet, I suspect that I am not alone in feeling more sad, angry, and hopeless of late. This is unusual for me as I tend to be a hopeful person who believes that there is good in most people and that there is always something we can do to make things better.

So, you may ask, what does all this reflection have to do with service and gratitude and what does this have to do with an OBBSR blog? Well, in addition to thinking about what else I can do in my personal life to take care of my well-being and meaningfully contribute to making things better, I started to think about the principles of service and gratitude in my work life. The NIH is actively growing health focused research portfolios to address many of the current challenges and provide evidence-informed solutions to help us address future challenges. I feel deep gratitude to be a part of the behavioral and social science community and to work at the NIH. This service to the nation through developing and supporting new avenues of research is not unique to the behavioral and social science research (BSSR) community but that is the focus I will take since this is an OBSSR blog.

Through active engagement by the behavioral and social science staff at the NIH, we are engaging in research on some of the toughest, multi-level, and complex issues that affect health and well-being. Clearly, these efforts will not improve things immediately or solve all the problems, but they do build a foundation for a healthier and more equitable future.

There is so much going on that there is no way I can be comprehensive, but below are a few examples of NIH efforts, with an emphasis on activities where OBSSR is the lead or an active partner:

  • Racism and Health: This past blog and this article summarize some of the behavioral and social sciences research efforts on structural racism and health, including information about the BSSR- Coordinating Committee work group on structural racism and health that was formed in 2020 and is focused on identifying and addressing important and unmet research and capacity building needs in this area.
  • Environmental Health Equity: NIH held a recent workshop, led by the NIEHS led and supported by OBSSR and other Institutes and Centers, titled “Advancing Environmental Health Equity Through Implementation Science.” The workshop reviewed the state of the science and identified the critical research, resource, and capacity needs to prevent or mitigate potentially harmful environmental exposures and advance environmental health equity. Details and recordings of the workshop can be found here.
  • Opioid and Pain Crises in the US: This supplemental issue of the American Journal of Public Health includes research papers and commentaries addressing the biopsychological, behavioral, and social aspects of the interrelated opioid and pain crises in the nation. The commentaries complement the research papers and bring in diverse perspectives such as those from legal professionals, government agencies, researchers, advocates, and people with lived experiences. Also, see here for more information the role of BSSR at NIH in addressing the opioid and pain crises.
  • COVID-19: BSSR has been integral to many of the large and small COVID-19 research efforts across the NIH. Examples include: 1) The NIH Social, Behavioral, and Economic Initiative on the Health Impacts of COVID-19 which was focused on research to improve our understanding of the efficacy and impacts of various mitigation efforts, assess the downstream health and healthcare access effects from the economic downturn, and evaluate digital and community interventions to ameliorate these health effects. See this link. 2) Development of a tip sheet and report that outline evidence-informed communication strategies to address vaccine hesitancy and foster vaccine confidence in support of federal agencies and their state and local partners. 3) The launch and curation of a COVID-19 Survey Item Repository that is available on the DR2 and PhenX platforms. Also, see this article for more: Behavioral and social science in support of SARS-CoV-2 vaccination: National Institutes of Health initiatives.
  • Firearm violence, injury, and mortality prevention: We are in the third year of supporting a more robust research portfolio to increase our understanding of effective public health interventions to prevent firearm violence and the trauma, injuries, and mortality resulting from firearm violence. This year we issued two new funding opportunities designed to support a research network and coordinating center focused on testing community level interventions for firearm and related violence injury and mortality prevention. See here for more extensive details about funded research and funding opportunities in this area.

I am not naïve about the challenges facing us and I don’t pretend that these efforts are all that is needed to address some of the biggest health issues of our day. However, reminding myself of this wide range of important ongoing and new research, led me to feel grateful to be part of the BSSR team across the NIH that strives to answer questions that will serve the public good. I am also thankful for the extramural behavioral and social scientists that are tackling these big challenges as they are the lynchpin to producing innovative research that informs change. This reflection process provided me with a bit of solace and hope for the future at a time when that was sorely needed. I hope that it does for you too.