Our way forward: Improve biomedical research and the technological revolution with behavioral and social sciences

Our way forward: Improve biomedical research and the technological revolution with behavioral and social sciences

The finishing touches to being appointed Director of the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) and Associate Director of NIH for Behavioral and Social Sciences occurred while I was at the Precision Medicine Initiative workshop on Mobile and Personal Technologies on July 27-28. This was particularly appropriate since this meeting highlighted for me two important directions for OBSSR moving forward.

First, the meeting showcased the range of current mobile, wireless and personal technologies that can be leveraged to improve the measurement precision of numerous behavioral and environmental variables. To paraphrase Lord Kelvin, the greatest advances in science are preceded by great advances in measurement. The ability to intensively and often passively sample behavior and environment naturalistically and in context has the potential to reveal influences of behavior that previously have been hidden from us.

The technological revolution and advancement of behavioral and social sciences

These technologies also afford us the ability to deliver interventions adaptively over time and in the context in which the behavior occurs. As a result, they not only offer greater reach for our interventions, but also potentially greater effectiveness.

This technological revolution provides exciting new ways to measure and intervene, but this excitement needs to be tempered with scientific scrutiny and rigor if we are to optimize the ability of these technologies to advance behavioral and social sciences research.

Secondly, this meeting highlighted how the behavioral and social sciences are integral to the larger biomedical mission of NIH. The Precision Medicine Initiative is not a behavioral and social sciences initiative, but the behavioral and social sciences are critical to its success if we are to accurately preempt illness and improve health. “Separate but equal” did not work for civil rights, and does not work for advancing behavioral and social sciences.

The behavioral and social sciences must become so integral to the larger biomedical research efforts of NIH that their absence is considered a weakness of the study.

Integration of behavioral and social sciences in biomedical research

From my experience in the OBSSR Acting Director role over the past year, I believe our biomedical colleagues are interested in and value this input, but it is incumbent on the behavioral and social sciences research community to give clear and concise input on what we know and provide thoughtful research designs to learn what we do not know.  This integration is also reciprocal. Behavioral and social sciences have and must continue to incorporate findings from genetics, neuroscience and other biomedical fields to improve our research. It is as incomplete for us to do research without consideration of the genetic and biological influences of behavior as it is for our biomedical colleagues to do research without consideration of the behavioral and environmental influences on brain and biology.

Of course, there are many more areas to highlight as future directions for the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Reseach (OBSSR), including building a better pipeline from basic to applied research and facilitating common behavioral ontologies. Through a strategic planning process and other inputs, the future directions of OBSSR will be plotted in the near future.

I was asked during the interview process about the greatest personal challenge I anticipated in serving as Director of OBSSR. I said then and firmly believe that it is to adequately represent the breadth of behavioral and social sciences from behavioral neuroscience through social determinants of health. And while representing that breadth, OBSSR must also be strategic in identifying a limited number of efforts that it is uniquely poised to address.

Without the input of the scientific community, this balanced and balancing approach of representing the full scope of the field, while also identifying unique areas of emphasis cannot be accomplished. I received many congratulatory notes upon this announcement, both within NIH and from the extramural community, and I hope these congratulatory notes will quickly morph into input about both what is exciting and what is needed.

I realize that long-term maintenance of most behaviors is difficult to achieve, but I want to send a unequivocal message to the broader scientific community: I encourage you to keep your input coming. Make sure I especially know about new and impactful research findings, as I attempt to represent the breadth of behavioral and social sciences to the NIH leadership and to the broad scientific community. I am honored to serve the NIH and the behavioral and social sciences research community in this role.

Related Reads

Announcement by Francis S. Collins, Director of NIH: http://www.nih.gov/about/director/0730015_statement_william_riley.htm

Related Articles

Close