Understanding behavioral, social, and biological interactions to turn discovery into health: OBSSR's new strategic plan

Understanding behavioral, social, and biological interactions to turn discovery into health: OBSSR’s new strategic plan


Today, the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) releases its Strategic Plan 2017 to 2021.  In concert with this release, Science Translational Medicine has published an editorial by Francis Collins, NIH Director, and me that highlights some of the scientific and technological advances that have the potential to transform the behavioral and social sciences.  Behavioral and social determinants account for approximately half of the premature deaths in the U.S.  Understanding how these behavioral and social determinants interact with biology and can be modified to improve health requires a robust and rigorous behavioral and social sciences research (BSSR) agenda that the OBSSR was created to steward and coordinate.

Three equally important scientific priorities are identified in the strategic plan.  The overarching theme of these scientific priorities is to encourage a more cumulative and integrated BSSR enterprise that extends from basic science through the adoption of approaches to improve the nation's health.  These priorities were determined based on their potential to have the greatest impact on the largest proportion of health-related BSSR, and on being priorities that OBSSR is uniquely positioned to address.

  1. Improve the synergy of basic and applied behavioral and social sciences research. NIH's commitment to basic research extends to basic behavioral and social sciences research that seeks to understand and explain behavioral and social processes that have a plausible pathway to a health-relevant application.  In fiscal year 2016, NIH funded over 1000 new grants in basic behavioral and social sciences research, and OBSSR remains committed to ensuring a relevant and rigorous basic behavioral and social sciences research agenda at the NIH.  Innovation in applied research often has its roots in basic research.  Therefore, it is critical for OBSSR not only to support a robust basic behavioral and social sciences research agenda at NIH but also to facilitate bidirectional communication among basic and applied researchers that ensures both that applied research is fully informed by basic research findings and that basic research is responsive to the discovery science needs of applied researchers.
  1. Enhance and promote the research infrastructure, methods, and measures needed to support a more cumulative and integrative approach to behavioral and social sciences research.  The V's that define big data (i.e., volume, variety, and velocity) are increasingly the characteristics of behavioral and social sciences data. Technological advances from smartphones and wearable and home-based sensors now allow us to collect temporally dense data on behaviors and their contexts.  Digital footprints from our routine interactions with the digital world provide the potential to extract meaningful information about knowledge, thoughts, behaviors and social networks.  Existing and emerging cohort initiatives produce an increasingly complex array of data ranging from genetic to social determinants of health.  Maximizing the value of these data sources requires the ability to share, harmonize, and integrate data sets, and to do so for behavioral and social sciences data will require a more organized and accepted set of behavioral ontologies and consensus measures as well as co-calibration of different measures of the same construct.  These growing varieties of data also will necessitate new methodologies and analytics, including more computational dynamic modeling approaches, as the field evolves into a more data-rich set of sciences.
  1.  Facilitate the adoption of behavioral and social sciences research findings in health research and in practice.  To narrow the gap between research findings and their adoption into practice, behavioral intervention research needs to be increasingly conducted in the context in which it is intended to be delivered.  The adoption of effective behavioral and social science interventions is hindered by the breadth of contexts in which these interventions are delivered (e.g., healthcare systems, communities, organizations, policy settings) and by the limited resources available to support implementation in these delivery contexts.  Therefore, OBSSR will partner with other agencies and entities to reduce these barriers to adoption and will expand our communications efforts to disseminate better behavioral and social sciences research relevant to practice settings.  These adoption efforts extend to health research in which a greater understanding of behavioral and social processes can benefit biomedical research efforts.

In addition to these scientific priorities, the OBSSR Strategic Plan also describes the foundational processes of Communications, Program Coordination and Integration, Training, and Policy and Evaluation by which these scientific priorities, as well as our broader behavioral and social sciences research mission at the NIH, are achieved.  OBSSR has organized itself into teams representing these foundational processes to implement strategies to achieve the objectives within each of these scientific priorities.

The OBSSR Strategic Plan is the result of an extensive effort that obtained input from within the NIH and from the broader research community.  The NIH Strategic Plan Working Group and the Strategic Planning Expert Panel (the membership of both are listed in the Strategic Plan) guided our efforts and provided important input that shaped this plan.  We also benefited greatly from feedback from the research community and from our colleagues in the various institutes and centers.  We have received excellent support for the development of this plan from NIH leadership, including the NIH Director and Deputy Director, the Director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, and from NIH Institute and Center Directors.  Rose Li Associates provided logistics, scientific writing, and a variety of activities in support of the strategic planning process.  This strategic planning process began with retreats of the OBSSR staff who have contributed throughout this process, and Stephane Philogene, the OBSSR Deputy Director, coordinated the strategic planning process from start to finish.

The release of the OBSSR Strategic Plan, however, represents the beginning, not the end, of this effort.  It is now the responsibility of OBSSR, with support from our NIH Institute, Center, and Office colleagues as well as from the behavioral and social sciences research community, to achieve the objectives outlined in the plan.  The plan describes a bold and ambitious agenda to encourage a more cumulative and integrated behavioral and social sciences research enterprise.  Some of the objectives described in this plan will be difficult to achieve, but to quote Jimmy Dugan in the movie, A League of their Own - "It's supposed to be hard!  If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.  The hard is what makes it great."