Integration of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Report Presented to NIH Council of Councils 

May 26, 2022 

Representatives across the Institutes and Centers (IC) Advisory Councils convened for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Council of Councils on May 19-20 (see agenda and video recordings here), to advise the NIH Director on matters related to the policies and activities of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives (DPCPSI). 

Of interest to FABBS scientists, Acting Director of the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR), Christine Hunter, Ph.D., ABPP, presented findings from the Report of the Council of Councils Working Group on Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Integration (see presentation slides here). Congressional language in the 2021 House of Representatives for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill (see FABBS’ previous coverage on appropriations here) drove the formation of the working group and demonstrated a more robust commitment to the behavioral sciences at the NIH. The language directs to convene a special advisory panel of behavioral scientists and other community experts to complete an assessment on how well BSSR is currently integrated at the NIH ICs and to provide recommendations on how to improve and realize the benefits of behavioral research to overall health.

Congratulations to Dr. Hunter and OBSSR on this significant accomplishment and the excellent reception of the report; FABBS will be working to support this progress. 

Below is a summary of findings and the recommendations by the working group. 

BSSR Representation: Advisory Councils and Staff

By policy since 2019, NIH Advisory Councils are required to include “not less than two individuals who are leaders in the fields of public health and the behavioral or social sciences.” Despite this, the working group reported that “two levels of BSSR expert review in December 2021…found 21 percent of those assessed with only one member who had primary expertise in behavioral science, population science, or public health.” ICs may technically be compliant with this policy, as it does not require the council member to have primary expertise in the behavioral or public health sciences. This representation can be improved upon to better represent our sciences at a high-level, as Advisory Councils have significant influence in the development and consideration of BSSR-relevant efforts at the IC.  

Nine ICs reported having dedicated work units or staff to BSSR, while the rest reported having a distributed portfolio model. The report found that ICs with dedicated work units or staff were more often rated as having higher BSSR integration. 

The working group recommended that the NIH may be able to improve IC Advisory Council BSSR representation through encouraging the inclusion of scientists whose primary expertise is in the behavioral or public health sciences. The general engagement and inclusion of BSSR expertise when developing new research policies and practices. 

Strategic Plans

In evaluating current (as of 2021) strategic plans at the NIH, the working group found that 42.9 percent were identified as having nominal BSSR integration – meaning there was no specific call-out, priorities, or outcomes related to BSSR. Just twenty-eight percent of the strategic plans were identified as having significant BSSR integration. 

The Working Group recommended a wider inclusion of BSSR in strategic plans – to emphasize its inclusion and communicate its importance to the internal staff and to the public.  FABBS works to advocate for better representation of our sciences, particularly in response to opportunities in NIH requests for information (RFIs) for the scientific community. See FABBS’ previous coverage on Increased Emphasis for the Brain and Behavioral Sciences in the NIH-Wide Strategic Plan.  

Funding for BSSR

In evaluating funding and grants (P50, P30, and R24 – these three resourcing center mechanisms were chosen for their fairly widespread use across the NIH, though not all ICs use them), the working group found that BSSR makes up only 10 percent of the overall NIH portfolio.  

Through 2010-2020, BSSR grant expenditures have grown over time, though there have been relatively small investments in training grants and resource grants. 

The working group administered an NIH survey on the following facets of BSSR efforts at NIH: 

Research or Training Activities, Initiatives, and Collaboration

The survey found that, in the last three fiscal years, six out of 24 ICs reported not having any research or training workshops with a BSSR focus led by their IC, while two ICs were unsure. For FOAs with a BSSR focus, while 18 percent of ICs surveyed reported leading FOAs with a BSSR focus, five ICs reported in FOAs at their ICs, and one IC was unsure. 

Many NIH-wide initiatives (17 out of 24 ICs) reported good participation in BSSR-focused NIH-wide research or training initiatives; due in part to being led by OBSSR or having significant support and coordination with OBSSR. 

However, eleven ICs reported not having or being unsure of having collaborative efforts among colleagues within their IC to produce BSSR-focused projects or those with a BSSR component in the last three fiscal years. Six ICs reported not having any external collaborations across ICs to develop BSSR initiatives, while two ICs were unsure. 

The working group recommended an improved coordination between OBSSR and ICs with nominal BSSR to ensure opportunities and increase applications of BSSR in their research and training initiatives 

BSSR-Relevant Scientific Communication

Most (22 ICs) reported highlighting BSSR-relevant scientific advances in communications to the external community – including for Congressional reporting, press material, or public communication. The brain and behavioral sciences have contributed major advances in public health challenges – spanning alcohol misuse to adherence to medical treatments. See FABBS’ previous coverage on the snapshots of accomplishments in our sciences.   

In recent testimony to Congress on the FY 23 Budget Request for the NIH, NIH Acting Director Dr. Lawrence A. Tabak stated, “we need continued support for a wide range of biomedical fields – including behavioral and social sciences, to identify and successfully implement better ways of responding to the short- and long-term effects of COVID 19 and to prepare for future pandemics.” The brain and behavioral sciences continue to be key pieces in science communication and in overcoming public health challenges faced today; FABBS works advocate for the integration of our scientists in multidisciplinary efforts and to educate the public on the value of research in our sciences.