Amid the avalanche of news, information, fake news, and alternative facts in the past few months, I want to bring to your attention some actual information sure to be valuable to you. The Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is among the most significant partners and friends of SBM. OBSSR is the primary advocate for BSSR at NIH, from the Office of the Director through all the Institutes and Centers. Not only is the scope of OBSSR and SBM similarly broad, but the close connection is illustrated by virtually all Directors of OBSSR being long-time members of SBM, including several Past-Presidents.
OBSSR's recently-released third Strategic Plan lays out its vision for advancing our field through 2021. The Strategic Plan is the result of a rigorous process that synthesized input from a wide array of stakeholders. As a member of the Expert Panel providing advice at multiple points, I had a valuable window on the process and can be confident in recommending the report for your careful consideration. You can download it here.
One of the remarkable aspects of the Strategic Plan is that it is conceptually-sophisticated yet user-friendly. The three scientific priorities manage to cover a wide spectrum of the research enterprise from basic research and methods development to addressing the need to disseminate and implement effective approaches to improving health. OBSSR will be working with colleagues throughout NIH to incorporate these priorities into plans for Institutes and Centers (ICs) so they are reflected in funding announcements. Because OBSSR does not directly fund studies, staff work collaboratively with ICs. SBM members can play an important supportive role by promoting use of the OBSSR Strategic Plan by Program Officers, Center for Scientific Review staff, and grant reviewers. Referencing the OBSSR Strategic Plan in your grant proposals as a rationale for your study aims could be beneficial.
To achieve the scientific priorities and advance BSSR in general, the Strategic Plan identifies four processes that will be emphasized over the next five years. First, communication of BSSR findings and their value to fellow scientists, decision makers, and the public at large is important for maximizing impact of the research and building greater support for BSSR. Second, there are growing opportunities to integrate BSSR into major research initiatives across NIH, but it is up to investigators to take advantage of these opportunities. A notable example is the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) Cohort Study. This study has hundreds of millions of dollars of funding to recruit and measure a cohort of 1 million Americans. Though most attention has been on the genetic and biological aspects, the plan is to collect behavioral, psychological, and social data as well. It is in the interest of SBM members to get involved in this enormous enterprise, because meaningful engagement of behavioral and social scientists is needed to ensure the scientific value of the project, and engagement will advance behavioral and social science. SBM members should think ahead to prepare proposals to use the PMI data when collected, because funding will be available. You can keep up with funding opportunities here. The third process emphasis is training of behavioral and social scientists to develop and use the next generation of methods, measures, technologies, big data, and expanded collaborations that are needed to advance science and improve health. The fourth process goal is to take on the challenge of evaluating the impact of BSSR on science and health, as part of a larger effort to enhance our impact on policy.
Just from this overview you can see the OBSSR vision is bold and calls for us to transform our field so we can do a much more effective job of improving health. The Strategic Plan calls for all of us to think bigger, learn more, and expand our collaborations. I hope each SBM member will read the Strategic Plan and be inspired to contribute to achieving the priorities. There are ways for SBM as an organization to participate. We can provide training in new methods at Annual Meetings. We can invite Keynotes and Master Lecturers with unfamiliar expertise to broaden our skills and perspectives. We can develop new Special Interest Groups and Committees to pursue new opportunities.
Having a Strategic Plan is not the same as achieving its goals. As investigators we will have to compete for the funding. We are the ones who will have to conceptualize, then develop and evaluate, new methods and interventions. We will have to seek out new collaborators with diverse skills and backgrounds. SBM leaders will have to implement new processes, structures, and develop new partnerships to lead us into the future. The effort will be worth it, because the payoff for improving our BSSR should be better health for all. Let's never forget that behavior is the primary determinant of health, so we have a great responsibility to be as effective as we possibly can.
Finally, I express my thanks to OBSSR Director William Riley, PhD for his openness to diverse input, dedication to creating a useful document, and service to BSSR, NIH, and focus on advancing science with the goal of improving health and well-being. He and his team did an outstanding job of creating a coherent and digestible vision from a cacophony of input.
James F. Sallis Jr., PhD
Society of Behavioral Medicine