Director's Voice Blog

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Integration of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at NIH

In this month’s blog, I want to share a brief summary of a recently completed report produced by a Council of Councils working group: Integration of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that was approved by the full Council. I encourage you to read the report if you are interested in a more thorough review of the working group’s methods, analyses, and recommendations.

The report was produced in response to Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill 2021 (H. Rpt. 116-450) from the House of Representatives where they direct the NIH Director “…to convene a special advisory panel of behavioral scientists and other community experts to complete an assessment providing recommendations on how to better integrate and realize the benefits to overall health from behavioral research at NIH.”

The working group determined that, to optimally realize the benefits of behavioral and social sciences research (BSSR), there should be integration of relevant BSSR expertise at multiple levels across the NIH. As such, integration would not only be evidenced through research and training funding, but also through inclusion in NIH-wide priorities, practices, processes, as well as the NIH workforce.

The working group identified the following eight recommendations and four cross cutting considerations:

Recommendations:

  • As strategic plans are revised, or new strategic plans are developed, the NIH should ensure BSSR is more consistently included and linked to the IC mission and priorities.
  • Evaluate and monitor the distribution of BSSR staff in the agency and identify strategies to address gaps in the number of BSSR staff and to increase diversity of BSSR expertise.
  • IC Advisory Council representation should be brought into compliance with policy (a minimum of two members with behavioral or public health expertise on each Advisory Council).
  • Continue to evaluate and monitor the composition of scientific review panels to assure they adequately reflect BSSR knowledge and expertise and then rapidly address any systematic gaps and biases.
  • ICs with nominal BSSR in their portfolios should work with the OBSSR to identify opportunities to increase the application of BSSR in their initiatives to better advance their mission.
  • Identify gaps and address opportunities to increase centers, resource grants, and trial networks that include BSSR capacity and focus.
  • Increase resources for the OBSSR to better support its mission and role as the coordinating office tasked with NIH-wide BSSR integration.
  • Engage BSSR expertise early and throughout the development and implementation of new research policies and practices.

Cross-Cutting Considerations:

  • Enhance the precision in measurement and analysis approaches to characterize NIH funding to support greater nuance in tracking funding trends in BSSR and beyond.
  • Draw from the rich body of behavioral and social sciences findings to enhance the diversity of the NIH and extramural research workforce.
  • Foster team science and multidisciplinary integration.
  • Consistently involve BSSR to enhance the effective, efficient, equitable and ethical conduct of science.

OBSSR has an important role in achieving the NIH mission to “seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.” For example, the value of BSSR is well established for enhancing lifestyle behaviors and preventing disease, as well as in managing many acute and chronic diseases or conditions. Enhanced integration of BSSR across the NIH will accelerate our ability to address some of the most complex and pressing public health issues of our time.

OBSSR is developing and executing plans for implementing the recommendations in the report. Our office is excited to work across the NIH to help address the recommendations in this report in partnership with the NIH Institutes and Centers. In the coming years, we look forward to providing updates on our progress.