Q&A with William T. Riley, PhD

May 9, 2019

William T. Riley is the Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). During his 13 years at the NIH, he also served at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Dr. Riley’s research interests include behavioral assessment, technology-based interventions for health risk factors, and the application of engineering and computer science methodologies to the behavioral sciences.

Courtesy of NIH

Please tell us a little bit about the role of Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health.

OBSSR was enacted by Congress nearly a quarter century ago to coordinate the behavioral and social sciences research supported across the NIH institutes and to help the NIH institutes identify behavioral and social sciences research initiatives that, in collaboration with these institutes, the NIH should pursue.  OBSSR engages in a number of activities to enhance the impact of these sciences, coordinate and integrate these sciences across the NIH, and communicate health-related behavioral and social sciences research findings to various stakeholders.

What are some of the challenges for individual institutes when it comes to funding behavioral and brain sciences?

Each NIH Institute and Center (IC) has its own mission and research priorities.  The role of the behavioral and brain sciences differs with each IC’s mission and research priorities.  In some behavioral and social science research areas, there is considerable overlap and interest across multiple ICs.  In other behavioral and social science research areas, few ICs may consider the area as relevant to their mission and priorities.  For instance, some ICs support applied behavioral and social sciences, but do not consider basic behavioral and social sciences relevant to their mission even though these applied research efforts are only possible because of the translation of basic research findings.

What inspired OBSSR to collect these examples from the community?

For various stakeholders, it is important to communicate how the NIH investment in behavioral and social sciences research has improved the health of our nation and the world. OBSSR has had a fact sheet listing behavioral and social sciences research accomplishments, but that list is limited and becoming dated. Instead of generating another limited list of the accomplishments that our staff could generate, we wanted to open it up to the research community to describe a more complete and diverse set of accomplishments, leading us to initiate this crowdsourcing effort at OBSSR.ideascale.com.

What does OBSSR hope to get out of this initiative and how do you plan to use these comments?

OBSSR hopes to develop a list of impactful public health and healthcare accomplishments that were made possible, in full or in part, as a result of behavioral and/or social sciences research.  When the crowdsourcing campaign ends on July 31, 2019, an expert panel will review the submissions and assist OBSSR in organizing and selecting the list of accomplishments to be useful to a broad array of stakeholders. OBSSR will then post these on the website and disseminate them via various communication channels. 

Any words of advice or encouragement for members of our FABBS Societies thinking about sharing examples?

FABBS members tend to be on the basic research end of the translational continuum, but OBSSR is looking for more than just the seminal clinical study that led to a public health or healthcare improvement.  We also want to include some of the basic research that led to the applied research that ultimately resulted in the public health or healthcare accomplishment.  In addition to submitting an accomplishment and its supporting research, I encourage the FABBS members also to review submissions that include only applied research and add basic research that led to this applied research and the eventual health or healthcare accomplishment.