DBASSE Director to Retire, Sparking Hunt for Replacement

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has begun the search for a new executive director for the National Research Council’s Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Mary Ellen O’Connell, the current head of DBASSE, announced last month that she would be retiring in January. She has led the division since November 2016.

DBASSE is one of seven divisions of the National Academies and focuses on advancing the behavioral and social sciences and education and their application to policy and practice. As a job announcement for the position explains, DBASSE “sits at the heart of many areas of central importance to progress in a range of key policy areas —including national statistics, science education, education research, criminal justice, responses to climate change, human capital management, population change, and the well-being health of children, youth, and families.”

Mary Ellen O'Connell
Mary Ellen O’Connell has served DBASSE for two decades.

As O’Connell noted in an email announcing her retirement sent to social and behavioral science partners outside of DBASSE, “We have an impressive portfolio on topics like how the Census is conducted, addressing intergenerational poverty, calling attention to the need for a focus on quality science education, racial inequities in the criminal justice system, models to inform financing of climate change responses, and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-racism in STEM – how can it get more important and inspiring than that?” 

Created by Congress during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the National Academies’ mission has evolved to provide independent and authoritative advice to the nation on critical issues involving science, technology, engineering, and health. DBASSE focuses more explicitly on issues informed by behavioral and social science at the request of federal agencies, Congress, state and local decision-makers, private foundations and nonprofit organizations. Two-thirds of the DBASSE portfolio is supported by federal agencies, with private foundations accounting for the bulk of the remaining third. 

In a model that is standard across the National Academies, DBASSE programs are carried out by boards and committees comprised of volunteer committee experts, each board led by a director who is a senior DBASSE staffer.  O’Connell, for example, served as the acting director of the Board on Environmental Change and Society, as deputy director of the board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences and the Board on Human-Systems Integration, and as a senior program officer with the Board on Children, Youth and Families within DBASSE in the years before she was named executive director. Boards , which include members of the National Academies, the National Academy of Engineering, and relevant experts, all supported by DBASSE staff.

DBASSE boards have a variety of relationships with key sponsors including federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other agencies /offices within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Education, Commerce Department, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, as well as a number of private foundations and non-profit organizations and professional associations.

The division itself includes approximately 60 full and part-time staff and about $20 million in activities. The National Academies as a whole are modernizing its infrastructure and processes, and the new executive director will define the strategic direction of the division. According to DBASSE, the new director “will shape and guide a modern vision that maximizes DBASSE’s impact in society. … [They] will evaluate emerging trends and identify new opportunities to serve the scientific and policy community. Key outcomes will include expanding the base of sponsors, growing funding and support for programs, enabling the division’s projects to maximize their potential for impact, and fostering innovation to meet changing sponsor needs.”

A full description of the qualifications expected in the new director can be found on the DBASSE website, but key points include a background in a discipline related to social and behavioral science and education; 15 years of management experience in a complex organization; experience working with government, non-profits and social science stakeholders; and a track record of program development and management in two or more of the following areas: national statistics, science education, education research, criminal justice, the human dimensions of environmental change, human systems integration, population science/demography, behavioral science, child development and well-being.

O’Connell has been at the National Academies for 20 years, serving as DBASSE’s deputy executive director since 2012.  She has led studies on a wide range of topics including an evaluation of disability and rehabilitation program outcomes; home healthcare; prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders; ethical considerations for research; and an evaluation of international education programs.

Before joining the National Academies, O’Connell developed and led a variety of policy and program initiatives at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare.  O’Connell received a B.A. from Cornell University and an M.S. in the management of human services from the Heller Graduate School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

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