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Q&A with Bill Riley, NIH OBSSR

February 26, 2020

William T. Riley, Ph.D., Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

What is the role of OBSSR at NIH?

Congress established the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) to coordinate behavioral and social sciences research (BSSR) conducted and supported by the NIH institute and centers (ICs), and to identify and develop research initiatives in collaboration with the NIH institutes and centers. The office leads or coordinates development of trans-NIH BSSR initiatives, supports training efforts, and uses much of its budget to assist ICs in funding BSSR grants.

For a small office with limited resources, OBSSR coordinates and advances a broad and substantial BSSR research effort across the translational spectrum from basic foundational research to implementation science and population health. We are only able to do so by collaborating with the network of BSSR expertise in the various NIH institutes and centers. 

As you know, the basic behavioral and social sciences research community has been impacted by the clinical trials policies. What has OBSSR done to address this issue?

The BSSR field, including the basic BSSR field, is supportive of rigor and transparency in research. The field has led efforts addressing reproducibility and replication and has encouraged registration and reporting through its journals and professional organizations. Our office has been consistent in communicating within the NIH that the field is concerned about the breadth of research subsumed under the NIH clinical trials definition and the challenges in adhering to policies more conducive to applied clinical research than basic research involving humans, but is supportive of the goal of improving rigor and transparency.

Our office led a trans-NIH committee that developed the Basic Experimental Studies Involving Humans (BESH) FOAs to give basic research subsumed under the clinical trials policies a FOA home. We have promoted a behavioral Good Clinical Practice Training module. Partnering with clinicaltrials.gov, we have developed soon-to-be released materials and tools to assist applied BSSR investigators navigate better registration and reporting on the site.

We have also assisted clinicaltrials.gov as it evaluates the issues of basic researchers registering and reporting on the site. The NIH BSSR coordinating committee working group on clinical trials policies worked with the NIH Office of Science Policy to develop a behavioral protocol template. We continue to work with the Office of Extramural Research on differentiating better the applications that submit under a clinical trials FOA. The NIH has recognized that challenges exist with registering and reporting for some BSSR studies and has initiated a serious and concerted effort to address these challenges. 

OBSSR turns 25 this year.  What are some of the important accomplishments of the Office? 

Over the past 25 years, OBSSR has worked diligently to fulfill Congress’s charge, guided by three strategic plans during that time.  The list of accomplishments is long, but let me highlight a few themes. 

  • Soon after the office was established, OBSSR issued Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) for the development of short-term educational workshops for early career researchers, and training the next generation of behavioral and social science researchers has been a priority ever since. OBSSR and NHLBI collaborated on the first annual Summer Institute on Randomized Behavioral Clinical Trials, now in its 19th year, and extended this annual training institute model to topics such as Systems Science, Mobile Health, and Implementation Research. These and other advanced training institutes are now supported through R25 FOAS on Short Courses on Innovative Methodologies, one in 2013 and another in 2018. Recently, OBSSR sought to expand its training initiatives beyond these annual training institutes and released a T32 FOA on Predoctoral Training in Advanced Data Analytics for Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, and T32 administrative supplements to develop curricula that better integrates behavioral and social sciences with other health-related sciences. Both of these T32 initiatives will be awarded this year.
  • Beginning with the first OBSSR Director, Norman Anderson, the integration of behavioral and social sciences research within the larger NIH mission has been a priority of OBSSR. OBSSR has identified opportunities to integrate better the behavioral and social sciences across the various efforts of the NIH, particularly its larger, trans-NIH initiatives such as Blueprint  and BRAIN Initiatives, All of Us, and the Helping End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative. Proactive efforts by OBSSR staff have been instrumental in ensuring that large trans-NIH initiatives incorporate behavioral and social sciences research within their objectives.

To celebrate our 25th anniversary, we have a number of events planned. On June 8th, we will hold our 13th NIH Matilda White Riley Behavioral and Social Sciences Honors which recognizes a distinguished scholar in the behavioral and social sciences as well as emerging scholars through the early stage investigators paper competition. On December 1st, we will hold our annual NIH Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Festival. During previous festivals, we have highlighted recent research supported by the NIH, but for our 25th anniversary festival we plan to highlight researchers who have produced an exceptional record of research, funding, and publications over the past decade or more. I hope the members of the various FABBS associations will join us in celebrating 25 years of OBSSR and the important role that the behavioral and social sciences play in mission of the NIH and the health of the nation.

You mentioned the OBSSR Strategic Plan. What are your plans for updating the plan and how can the research community weigh in? 

OBSSR released its third strategic plan in September, 2017, and we are already halfway through this five-year plan. OBSSR has organized its functions and activities to achieve the objectives of this strategic plan and has made significant progress on these objectives. Internally, OBSSR is performing a mid-course evaluation to assess what has been accomplished and what remains to be accomplished under the current strategic plan, but in parallel we have also begun planning for the next strategic plan, and we want input from the research community.

On February 18, we released a RFI and IdeaScale campaign seeking broad input to identify important new directions for health-related BSSR. Our current plan describes three scientific priorities: 

  • Improve the synergy of basic and applied behavioral and social sciences research
  • Enhance and promote the research infrastructure, methods, and measures needed to support a more cumulative and integrated approach to behavioral and social sciences research
  • Facilitate the adoption of behavioral and social sciences research findings in health research and in practice

Within these broad scientific priorities, we are seeking input on new objectives, directions, and strategies to consider for the next strategic plan. I encourage the behavioral and brain sciences communities to take a few minutes to contribute their best ideas of how OBSSR can meet its mission to enhance the impact of health-related behavioral and social sciences research, coordinate behavioral and social sciences research conducted or supported by the NIH and integrate these sciences within the larger NIH research enterprise, and communicate health-related behavioral and social sciences research findings to various stakeholders within and outside the federal government.

To ensure consideration, responses must be submitted by midnight (ET) on March 29, 2020 through OBSSR’s crowdsourcing website. Once your IdeaScale account is created and you are logged in, you can submit an idea, browse and respond to ideas that have already been submitted, and vote for other ideas.


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