The NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research

An Update on Activities

Norman B. Anderson, PhD, Director of OBSSR

Norman B. Anderson, PhD, Director of OBSSR In 1993, Congress established the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the belief that scientific research on behavioral and social factors had been underfunded relative to its contributions to health and illness and compared with NIH funding for the biomedical sciences. OBSSR officially opened in July 1995. The purpose of this column is to provide a brief update on some of the Office's activities during its first 10 months of existence.

Defining Behavioral and Social Sciences Research

Congress mandated that OBSSR develop a standard definition of behavioral and social sciences research that could be used to assess and monitor NIH funding in this area. Past attempts at assessing and monitoring NIH support of the behavioral and social sciences have suffered from the lack of a uniform definition of the field that could be applied across all the institutes and centers.

A draft definition was developed by OBSSR and then reviewed in a series of nine focus groups of scientists from fields such as psychology, sociology, social work, anthropology, nursing, psychiatry, public health, demography, epidemiology, behavioral neuroscience, psychopharmacology, behavioral physiology, and health and behavior. The definition was revised based on comments from those focus groups and has now been distributed to the governing boards of various behavioral and social science organizations for further review. Prior to using the definition to assess the NIH portfolio and reporting the results to Congress, the definition will be tested to ensure that it is effective in capturing all behavioral and social sciences grants, while excluding those outside this field.

Funding Behavioral and Social Sciences Research

In the funding arena, OBSSR organized a trans-NIH and trans-agency Request for Applications (RFA) on violence against women and violence within the family. This RFA was a collaborative effort between OBSSR and the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Justice, and the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. This trans-NIH/trans-agency collaboration will serve as a prototype for other planned funding initiatives to be coordinated by OBSSR. That is, OBSSR will identify areas of research that cut across institute boundaries and that may be suitable for the RFA or PA (Program Announcement) mechanisms.

The Office also uses a portion of its own budget to support behavioral and social sciences research grants. In fiscal year 1995, a total of 39 research grants and conference grants were supplemented, fully funded, or cofunded (with an institute) using OBSSR funds. These grants covered a wide variety of fields and involved practically every institute at NIH. For fiscal year 1996, the focus of funding from OBSSR will be basic behavioral and social sciences research. Peer-reviewed grants that were highly rated, but that missed the payline, will be considered.

Developing a Strategic Plan

OBSSR has also developed a strategic plan to assist in charting the future direction of the Office and in establishing its priorities. Two strategic planning meetings were held in February and March involving more than 80 scientists, science administrators, and representatives of science organizations. The recommendations from those meetings will form the basis of the OBSSR Strategic Plan. This document will outline specific goals, strategies, and actions that will serve as the core activities of OBSSR for the next 3 to 5 years.

Increasing Behavioral and Social Sciences Visibility in the NIH Community

The visible presence of behavioral and social sciences research in the vibrant intellectual community on the campus of NIH is of critical importance. The more that biomedical researchers and administrators know about the strength of our science, the better it is for the advancement of the field. The Office has both organized and participated in several activities designed to highlight discoveries in our field. For example, in conjunction with the Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Coordinating Committee (BSSR-CC, formerly the Health and Behavioral Coordinating Committee), the Office sponsors a seminar series that brings to NIH some of the top behavioral and social scientists to make formal presentations. The Office also coordinates monthly briefings for NIH Director Harold Varmus, MD, during which individual behavioral and social scientists discuss their research in an informal setting. Finally, OBSSR is planning three major scientific conferences to be held at NIH. These include conferences on the science of self-report, the contributions of basic behavioral and social sciences research to prevention, and the task of facilitating collaborations between behavioral and social and biomedical researchers in the oral health field.

The first year for OBSSR has been both exciting and challenging. I look forward to continuing to work closely with the behavioral and social sciences community to remove the artificial separation between biomedical and behavioral and social science research and to have them viewed as equal and complementary partners in achieving the nation's health goals.

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