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Basic and applied behavioural and social sciences at the NIH

To the Editor — The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a long-standing commitment to basic research1,2, which extends to basic behavioural and social sciences research (bBSSR) that generates knowledge of how living systems interact with and are influenced by experiences at the individual, family, social, organizational, and environmental levels1. Consistent with its health mission, the NIH prioritizes bBSSR funding for projects that offer a plausible pathway to a health-relevant translation. Therefore, it is incumbent on bBSSR investigators applying for NIH funding to describe how their research might eventually lead to such translations.

The NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) recently released its Strategic Plan, emphasizing among its scientific priorities improvement of the synergy between basic and applied behavioural and social sciences research3. OBSSR is committed to coordinating NIH support for bBSSR with potential relevance to health. In the 2016 fiscal year, the NIH supported 1,035 new bBSSR grant awards, totalling over US$365 million. These grant awards were supported, to varying degrees, by all of the NIH institutes and centres and addressed a wide array of basic research including, the impact of immigration on the health of the elderly, the roles of intelligence and personality on the relationship between socioeconomic gradients and mortality, neurobiological processes of delay discounting, and behavioural and neural links between speech delay and literacy.

To advance bBSSR, OBSSR seeks to integrate basic research efforts, not only across NIH institutes and centres, but also among the range of biological, behavioural and social disciplines that contribute to bBSSR. For example, advances in neuroscience approaches and technologies are providing an ability to study brain function and activity with increasing levels of granularity4. Since these brain functions evolved to regulate the physiology, behaviour and environment of the organism, the brain is better understood in the context of the behaviour and environment that shaped it, and behaviour and the environment are better understood in the context of the brain's regulatory processes. Integrating the study of neurobiological, behavioural and social processes allows for systems modelling across levels of analysis5. Continued transdisciplinary efforts that integrate bBSSR with advances in neuroscience, genetics and emerging ‘omics’ fields has the potential to reveal the complex dynamic mechanisms that shape human behaviour.

Discovery research has inherent scientific value, but the public health impact of basic science findings depends on translation into interventions that change behaviour and improve health. Furthermore, innovation in such applied research can be best achieved by developing new approaches born from bBSSR. Applied research, however, appears increasingly less grounded in bBSSR. OBSSR, along with its various NIH partners, has worked to address this disconnect between basic and applied research via initiatives such as the Science of Behavior Change6, and Translating Basic Behavioral and Social Science Discoveries into Interventions to Reduce Obesity7. Future efforts to improve information exchange between basic and applied behavioural and social science researchers will require that basic researchers consider potential applications, and that applied researchers base their intervention models not only on theory but also on basic science findings. OBSSR will work to improve the bidirectional influences between basic and applied behavioural and social sciences research to improve health.


  1. 1

    NIH-wide Strategic Plan Fiscal Years 2016–2020: Turning Discovery into Health (NIH, 2015);

  2. 2

    Collins, F. S. et al. Science 351, 1405 (2016).

  3. 3

    The Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. Strategic Plan 2017–2021 (NIH, 2016);

  4. 4

    BRAIN 2025: A Scientific Vision (NIH, 2014);

  5. 5

    Bello-Morales, R. & Delgado-García, J. M. Front. Integr. Neurosci. 9, 54 (2015).

  6. 6

  7. 7

    Czajkowski, S. M. et al. Health Psychol. 34, 971–982 (2015).

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Correspondence to William T. Riley.

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Riley, W. Basic and applied behavioural and social sciences at the NIH. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0023 (2017).

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