Update on the NIH Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Initiative on the Health Impacts of COVID-19

This blog is co-authored with Dr. Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Eliseo J. Pérez-Stable, M.D., the Director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). Drs. Gordon, Pérez-Stable and Hunter Co-chair the SBE Executive Committee.

Over more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, science has delivered highly effective vaccines and increasingly effective therapeutics. However, it has become widely understood that these medical advances are necessary but not sufficient to optimally control the pandemic. Applying evidence from the behavioral and social sciences is crucial for vaccine acceptance and uptake, adoption of effective behavioral mitigation strategies such as face mask wearing and physical distancing and for helping to understand the full range of short-and long-term health consequences for individuals, social networks, and society. In this month’s blog, we share the progress of one of the NIH behavioral and social science initiatives formed in response to COVID-19 and information about an upcoming virtual event that will showcase the findings of researchers supported by this initiative.

Early in 2020, NIH leadership identified multiple cross-cutting research initiatives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these crosscutting initiatives was the formation of the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Executive Committee to focus 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. Led by the National Institute of Mental Health, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, National Institute on Aging, National Institute of Nursing Research, and the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research, a consortium of 21 NIH Institutes and Centers pooled funds along with $11 million from the Office of the NIH Director to develop and begin funding key aspects of this initiative. Across the initiative there has been an emphasis on understanding and addressing the impact on first responders, populations with health disparities and those with medical and social vulnerabilities most impacted by the pandemic.

To expedite research on the SBE effects of COVID-19, the committee reviewed and approved supplemental funding to support high priority “just-in-time” research in more than 50 grants. As stated in the NOSI these administrative supplements supported additional data collection to “address key social and behavioral questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including adherence to and transmission mitigation from various containment efforts; social, behavioral, and economic impacts from these containment and mitigation efforts; and downstream health impacts resulting from these social, behavioral, and economic impacts, including differences in risk and resiliency based on gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other social determinants of health.”

Through the SBE Executive Committee, the Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) listed below were issued. Two FOAs focused on research to evaluate digital health and community interventions to address the impact and consequences of COVID-19. The other two FOAs were to support a consortium and coordinating center to leverage existing population-based data to examine the efficacy of mitigation efforts and the impact of the subsequent economic disruption on multiple health-related outcomes. These FOAs resulted in the funding of an additional 37 grants with several more under consideration for funding this fiscal year.

The next activity supported by the SBE initiative is a two-day virtual event designed to showcase some of the findings produced to date from many researchers funded through the SBE initiative. In addition to highlighting research progress, the event is designed to provide a forum for collaboration and continued efforts to harmonize data. We invite you to join us for this exciting virtual event on April 27-28, 2022. Please register at this link.

The SBE research initiatives are contributing and will continue to contribute meaningful data to support not only the current pandemic response but also provide evidence to support an enhanced response to future pandemics and large-scale public health crises.

For additional information on behavioral and social science at NIH in support of COVID-19, please see these three published commentaries: