NIH’s BSSR portfolio: Research poised to make a healthier difference in people’s lives

NIH’s BSSR portfolio: Research poised to make a healthier difference in people’s lives

The Inaugural NIH Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Festival was held December 2, 2016.  This event was hosted jointly by the NIH Behavioral and Social Sciences Coordinating Committee (BSSR-CC) and the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR).  Thanks to these groups for organizing such a successful event.  We had 185 attend in person with another 280 livestreaming the event.  If you missed it, an archive of the videocast is available at

There were dual purposes for this event – 1) to highlight compelling recent behavioral and social sciences research supported by the NIH, and 2) to provide NIH behavioral and social sciences research staff and the broader research community with the opportunity to network. Reflecting on the day, I believe we achieved both.

Town-hall sessions to hear how OBSSR can serve our stakeholders

We had two excellent town halls, one with NIH staff and the other with the research community, to discuss issues affecting behavioral and social sciences research and what the OBSSR could do to better address these issues.  Along with poster sessions that highlighted projects and initiatives of the various NIH institutes and centers, these opportunities to network allowed us to do what we are increasingly less able to do in our busy and digitally-driven remote world – meet in person to compare notes, discuss issues, generate potential solutions, and better coordinate activities across the NIH’s 27 institutes and centers.

Academic researchers’ presentations related to OBSSR’s strategic plan

To highlight the behavioral and social sciences research supported by the NIH, we organized presentations around the three scientific priorities of the OBSSR Strategic Plan.

  • The Synergy of Basic to Applied presentations described a range of research integrating genetic, neurobiological, and affective processes with socioeconomic health disparities and positive health behavior change.
  • The Research Infrastructure, Methods, and Measures presentations highlighted advances in measurement of constructs ranging from childhood irritability to the impact of aided hearing on language outcomes, and innovative study designs and methods for data harmonization and integration.
  • The Adoption of Research Findings into Research and Practice presentations described transdisciplinary and implementation science research including the interactions of attention and reward, the Transdisciplinary Research in Energetics and Cancer (TREC) initiative, psychological resilience in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and parenting programs in primary care to prevent disparities in school readiness.

These were impressive research presentations of recent NIH grant awardees highlighting the importance of NIH funding in the behavioral and social sciences to the Nation’s health.

NIH funded more than 2,600 BSSR grants in FY2016

In Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16), over 2600 behavioral and social sciences grant awards were made by the NIH.  Over the last four years, we have made slow but steady progress in the funding of behavioral and social science research, particularly in basic research over the last two years.  I had time to read only the titles and some of the abstracts of the 2600 grants awarded in FY16, but it is clear from that review that our research community is doing innovative and impactful research with clear public health implications.  My presentation on the state of behavioral and social sciences at the NIH for FY16 highlighted only a few of these many important projects including research on computational modeling of the dynamics of influenza transmission and geocoding systems to better understand the contextual nature of health behaviors as well as research involving epigenetics, telomere dynamics, crowdsourcing, mindfulness, and self-management interventions for distressed caregivers.

Occasionally, we hear media accounts of wasteful spending that tend to include an example or two of NIH funded behavioral and social science research, often mischaracterized to make a point.  My sense from reviewing the awards made in FY16 is that the NIH continues to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars and funds research with the potential to make a difference in the lives of those we serve.  We continue to address challenges and opportunities in our field and work to advance the rigor and relevance of the behavioral and social sciences research that the NIH supports, but it is beneficial from time to time to take a short break from addressing what remains to be done and consider what has been accomplished.