For the past seven years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) has been led by a psychologist, Bill Riley, PhD. Upon his retirement, he spoke to APA about opportunities for behavioral and social sciences, and some of his successes advancing the role of psychology in basic behavioral and social sciences research, and in areas related to gun violence research, mobile (m-health) research, vaccine hesitancy, and minority health disparities, among others.
APA: APA and OBSSR have partnered together for years to advance social, behavioral, and population science at NIH. What do you see as important accomplishments so far, and new opportunities to come?
Riley: In a paper we published last year in Translational Behavioral Medicine, reflecting on 25 years of OBSSR, we highlighted three broad categories of activities that reflect long-standing strategic objectives of OBSSR throughout its history: training the next generation of researchers in rigorous, cutting-edge behavioral and social science research approaches; stimulating emerging research areas in which OBSSR serves as an incubator for nascent research areas until they obtain sufficient traction in the NIH institute and centers; and fostering the integration of behavioral and social sciences within the larger biomedical research enterprise. These broad themes, established by prior OBSSR leadership, provided a strong basis on which to expand the impact of the office on NIH and on the behavioral and social sciences research community.
Part of the mission of OBSSR is to highlight research projects that should be conducted or supported by the NIH institutes and centers. What are some projects you are particularly proud of?
OBSSR has accomplished much during the seven years I have been privileged to serve as director. The application of digital technologies (e.g., smartphones, sensors) to observing and changing behaviors and social contexts has evolved from a nascent, niche research area to an important component of most behavioral and social sciences research, and OBSSR leadership in mobile health has been integral to this evolution. OBSSR led the NIH effort to negotiate with the CDC’s National Death Index to make linkable mortality data more accessible to NIH-supported researchers. We expanded our behavioral and social sciences training efforts from a few Summer Training Institutes to include training opportunities across the career trajectory (i.e., T32s to K18).
We have also integrated the behavioral and social sciences more substantially into a number of large NIH initiatives, including All of Us, Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO), NIH Collaboratory, Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL), BRAIN/Blueprint, and various COVID-19 initiatives. Perhaps the most satisfying accomplishment has been the increased respect, value, and importance that the NIH now places on OBSSR and the behavioral and social sciences in advancing the NIH mission.
What advice do you have for psychologists interested in pursuing COVID-related research?
Much of the pandemic response has been social and/or behavioral in nature (e.g., getting people to socially distance, wear masks, get tested, get vaccinated), and many of the impacts from the pandemic are also social and/or behavioral in nature (e.g., substance use, emotional distress, social isolation, job loss, financial stress, health inequities). The pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of human existence, and whatever human experience psychological researchers were studying before the pandemic likely has relevance to the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, considerable NIH funding was provided to existing grantees as supplements to rapidly incorporate COVID-19 research questions into their ongoing studies.
Congress may soon give OBSSR an additional $20 million in funding—the most significant boost to its budget since its inception. Additional funding will enhance OBSSR’s efforts to fund important behavioral grants that have just missed the institutes and centers’ paylines. What are some of the most important areas of research this new funding would allow NIH to pursue?
Over the past seven years, OBSSR has supported important projects that led to predoctoral training in data science for behavioral and social scientists (TADA-BSSR), the use of digital technologies and computational approaches to understand changing of behavior within individuals over time (Intensive Longitudinal Health Behaviors Network) and a number of recent projects that address the social, behavioral, and economic impacts of COVID-19.
We have much more to learn about the social and behavioral aspects of the pandemic, including questions about increasing adherence to mitigation behaviors, estimating the cost-benefit of various mitigation activities, addressing vaccine hesitancy, and combating misinformation—all resource intensive efforts that will help address the current pandemic and prepare us better for future pandemics. There are other resource intensive research efforts such as increasing the translation of basic research to advancing social and behavioral change, accelerating the implementation of effective behavior change interventions, and improving data integration resources needed for comparing, sharing and leveraging data collected across studies.
The application of digital technologies (e.g., smartphones, sensors) to observing and changing behaviors and social contexts has evolved from a nascent, niche research area to an important component of most behavioral and social sciences research, and OBSSR leadership in mobile health has been integral to this evolution. OBSSR led the NIH effort to negotiate with the CDC’s National Death Index to make linkable mortality data more accessible to NIH-supported researchers. We expanded our behavioral and social sciences training efforts from a few Summer Training Institutes to include training opportunities across the career trajectory (i.e., T32s to K18).
What guidance do you have for your successor and the community regarding navigating resources to support social, behavioral, and population research at NIH and across the federal government?
During my tenure as OBSSR director, I have strived for our office to be productive, collaborative, and relevant to the NIH mission. Even with these efforts, were there times when the behavioral and social sciences were undervalued, under-resourced, sidelined or ignored? Sure. But instead of taking a “woe is the behavioral and social sciences” approach, we have worked the problem and patiently persisted in making behavioral and social sciences more relevant to the NIH mission and to the health of our nation and the world.
My immediate successor is the current OBSSR deputy director, Christine Hunter, PhD, ABPP, who will serve as acting director until a new OBSSR director is appointed. Christine is an exceptional leader and behavioral and social scientist who needs no guidance from me to continue OBSSR’s role in successfully coordinating and advancing the behavioral and social sciences at the NIH.