Reflections on 2020 and the Role of Behavioral and Social Sciences

While reflecting on 2020, I looked at my schedule for January and February of last year. It included many in-person meetings, including the pain measurement meeting we held in February 2020, as well as blocks of time to travel to and from meetings held at other venues. How our lives have changed since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began.

For most reading this blog, we have had to endure the relatively minor burdens of social distancing, quarantining, wearing masks, teleworking, and limiting where we go. For some, their jobs require working in-person and increasing their risk of exposure to the virus, including our frontline health care workers who are the true heroes of this pandemic. Others less fortunate lost their jobs due to business closings and the economic downturn. And still others contracted the virus (over 21 million in the U.S. to date) with over 350,000 of them dying thus far from it. Being supportive of those who have lost so much and endured so much as a result of this virus should be one of our 2021 New Year’s resolutions.

As disruptive and agonizing as this pandemic has been, it has also illustrated clearly the power of science. In less than a year, we have developed and evaluated new therapeutics that limit the severity of COVID-19, and novel vaccines are now being deployed to protect us from the virus. The pandemic also clearly illustrated the power of social and behavioral sciences. Mitigation strategies are population-level social and behavioral interventions based on prior research in the behaviors that reduce transmission of other respiratory viruses and that persuade individuals to adhere to them. Prior research also allowed us to anticipate and respond rapidly to the downstream health effects of the social and economic impacts from the pandemic and its mitigation. Last month we released a report of expert panel on best practices for vaccine communication to encourage uptake of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

There is still much to learn from a social and behavioral perspective on how we can respond better to this and future epidemics. To facilitate that learning, the NIH has supported a number of initiatives including COVID supplements to existing longitudinal research projects, a COVID survey repository to encourage data integration, a Social, Behavioral, and Economics Impact of COVID-19 initiative that, among other efforts, has and will fund research on digital and community-based interventions to ameliorate the healthcare access limitations produced by the pandemic, and the RADx-UP initiative to study COVID testing in vulnerable and underserved populations. These research efforts not only help us address the current pandemic but also make us better prepared and better able to manage future epidemics.

Of course, the pandemic was not the only disruptive and agonizing event of 2020. The death of George Floyd laid bare the continued struggle of our nation with racial injustice. The NIH has been working on a comprehensive response to address this issue, including the diversity of our own workforce, the lower success rates of Black vs. white grant applicants, and future research directions on how racism impacts health. To support these efforts, the NIH Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Coordinating Committee charged a working group with identifying promising directions for future research on the effects of racism on health. The social sciences have been studying for decades how racism influences health, and this body of research provides an excellent basis for considering potential future research directions.

Yet another social problem that impacts health is the injury and mortality from firearm violence. In fiscal year (FY) 2020, Congress appropriated $12.5 million to the NIH to support research that takes a comprehensive approach to studying underlying causes and evidence-based methods of prevention of injury, including crime prevention. Through two funding announcements (PAR-20-043, NOT-OD-20-089), the NIH funded nine projects addressing a range of firearm violence prevention strategies targeting various at risk groups in a number of different settings. Congress has provided funding to the NIH again in FY 2021 to address firearm violence prevention research.

2020 was a year of difficult challenges, but we are better able to address these challenges moving forward as a result of the contributions of the social and behavioral sciences. There are no quick fixes to these challenges (even the promise of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines will take time to deploy and considerable effort to encourage uptake while continuing to encourage mitigation behaviors), but a core value of the social and behavioral sciences is that we take a scientific approach to addressing these challenges, test our assumptions, and build a body of research that improves our ability to face the societal challenges for this year and the years ahead.

2020 also marked the 25th anniversary of OBSSR. Although this had been a challenging year to celebrate, there is perhaps no better way to celebrate 25 years of NIH behavioral and social sciences research than by applying this research to the major societal and health challenges of our nation and the world. We enter 2021 hopeful that we will face less health and societal challenges but prepared to conduct the behavioral and social sciences research necessary to address future challenges.