Q: What’s new at the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research? A: Strategic planning, precision medicine, OppNet evaluation and more

William Riley, PhD, who directs the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR), spoke last month to the expanded advocacy coalition now called Friends of NIH-BSSR (formerly CAHT-BSSR). This on-the-record talk covered a broad range of topics in which OBSSR is engaged.

OBSSR is now rewriting its Strategic Plan, which was last updated in 2007. An internal working group of NIH staff is helping shape it, and OBSSR is hosting a group of external scientists Jan. 19-20 to discuss ideas as well. A draft will be circulated for public comment in approximately late February. Dr. Riley hopes to have the new plan in place by April 1, 2016.

Dr. Riley discussed the President’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), which was announced in the 2015 State of the Union Address. The NIH website describes precision medicine as an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person.  $130 million was allocated to NIH to build a national, large-scale research participant cohort of over a million people, and $70 million was allocated to the National Cancer Institute to lead efforts in cancer genomics as part of PMI for Oncology. Dr. Riley said the large cohort would be built in part by leveraging existing study cohorts, and therefore data harmonization will be a big challenge.  OBSSR has been involved in the initial planning of this million-person cohort, and the NIH is committed to including behavioral, physiological and environmental measures. The recent advances in mobile and wireless sensor technologies to assess these behavioral, physiological, and environmental parameters are an integral aspect of this initiative.

Another important activity coordinated by OBSSR is the OppNet program, a trans-NIH effort to plan and fund cross-cutting basic behavioral and social sciences research. NIH is supporting an outside evaluation of the OppNet program grants from 2010- 2015 in an effort to quantify the program’s impact on areas of science and on basic science investigators. In those first five years OppNet was funded via a tap on participating institutes.  The authority for the tap has expired but OppNet continues as a “coalition of the willing.” A current OppNet focus area is culture and health.  The Office’s blog, OBSSR Connector, is a good way to keep up with OBSSR-sponsored events and other activities.