OBSSR Aims to Define Behavioral and Social Science Research


How do you define social and behavioral science, and what counts as research in those areas? While you likely have an ‘I know it when I see it’ definition, for bureaucratic purposes such idiosyncratic methods won’t suffice. That’s the case for the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, which has a rather lengthy revised definition that it’s currently asking experts to assess.

A definition was originally laid out when the office, or OBSSR, was created by the U.S. Congress in 1993. “The field has evolved significantly during the last two decades,” the office has stated, “and a more extensive update of the [behavioral and social science research] definition is needed to improve OBSSR’s and NIH’s ability to assess and monitor funding.”

Input is sought from behavioral and social science researchers in academia and industry, health care professionals, patient advocates and advocacy organizations, scientific or professional organizations, federal agencies, and other interested members of the public. (If you are answering for a group or organization, please submit a single, coordinated response.) The deadline to comment is February 22.

Some of the questions OBSSR has about its draft definition include:

  • Is the definition clear?
  • How well does the definition capture the full range of health-related behavioral and social sciences research at the NIH?
  • How well does the definition distinguish behavioral and social sciences research from other disciplines of research?

In all cases, the OBSSR requests that better language or suggested modifications accompany any critiques.

You can submit comments at the office’s IdeaScale site here: https://obssr.ideascale.com . The platform allows other visitors to both view your comments and comment on them in turn.

Revised Definition of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research for OBSSR

The behavioral and social sciences at the NIH include a multi-disciplinary set of research disciplines that have in common the study of behavior and social processes relevant to health.

BSSR at the NIH involves the systematic study of behavioral and social phenomena, as well as their causes and consequences:

  • “Behavioral” refers to overt or observable actions and to mental phenomena such as knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, cognitions, and emotions that are inferred from behavior.
  • “Social” refer to the interactions between and among individuals, and to the activities of social groups, institutions, and environments, including family, community, school, workplace, economic, cultural, and policy environments.

To further the behavioral and social sciences, researchers study the interplay between behavioral and environmental processes, focusing on causal and explanatory processes that occur not only within the organism (e.g., genetics, neurobiology, emotion, cognition) but also external to the organism (e.g., physical, familial, community, and societal influences).

The complex, bidirectional impacts of these external influences – the environment on behavior and behavior on the environment – are essential to the understanding of how behavior and the environment interact to affect health and well-being. This broad perspective on the underpinnings of behavior, from genetic through societal influences, provides the behavioral and social sciences with a unique perspective on the dynamic interactions that can influence health outcomes across an individual’s lifespan and across generations.  

The multi-disciplinary nature of BSSR is a challenge and an opportunity. The contributing disciplines of BSSR often have different scientific approaches, methods, definitions, vocabularies, and hypotheses.  This broad and complex research landscape, however, provides a rich fundamental and applied knowledge base to understand behavioral and social processes and how these processes impact health and well-being.

For the purposes of monitoring the behavioral and social sciences at the NIH, a project (grant application, funded grant, contract, etc.) is considered BSSR if any one of the dependent (predicted) variables or the independent (predictor) variables of the project is a “behavioral” or “social” phenomena as defined above.  Behavioral or social moderator or mediator variables also may be sufficient for a project to be classified as BSSR if these variables are relevant to study hypotheses.


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