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On January 28, 2010 the NIH Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (OppNet) issued a Request for Information (RFI) in the NIH Guide (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-10-055.html). The RFI’s major intent was to provide an avenue for the extramural community – including but not limited to, scientists, scientific organizations, health professionals, patient advocates, and the general public – to suggest priorities in basic behavioral and social sciences research (b-BSSR). National Institutes of Health (NIH) staff also was able to submit their ideas for scientific priorities. The directors and staff of the NIH Institutes, Centers and Offices (ICOs) participating in OppNet appreciate the thoughtful and informative responses to this important request.

The RFI solicited input on the following:

  • The Challenge: Describe what you believe to be the most critical, health related challenges that will benefit from b-BSSR.
  • The Opportunity: Indicate the most promising b-BSSR targets that will inform solutions to those problems. Targets may include scientific research, research training or core/shared resources (e.g., databases, assessment tools) in the basic behavioral and social sciences.
  • Outcome Indicators: Describe what measures could be used to indicate whether the proposed activities were successful in meeting the Challenge(s).

The Data
The RFI participation window was open from January 28 through February 19, 2010. We received responses from 318 individuals, including 286 submissions from extramural individuals and organizations, and 32 submissions from NIH staff. Although respondents had the opportunity to provide up to three separate “Challenge-Opportunity-Outcome Indicators” entries, most provided only one. In total, the 318 respondents provided 352 response sets. The result is a rich and complex dataset for OppNet members to use for short- and longer-term strategic planning.

The organizational responses were submitted by scientific societies (many, but not all, representing the behavioral and social sciences), advocacy and policy organizations, and research centers, academic or otherwise. The individual respondents were from a wide variety of academic disciplines. Approximately half (51%) of the respondents who chose to do so identified their primary scientific discipline as psychology (includes experimental, health, industrial/organizational, mathematical, and social psychology; neuropsychology, psychological acoustics, geropsychology, human factors; cognitive psychology/cognitive science; clinical psychology; developmental psychology/child development). The next highest clusters of primary disciplines indicated by the respondents were anthropology (14%; includes physical, cultural and medical anthropology), neuroscience (8%; includes affective, behavioral, and cognitive neuroscience; biopsychology; neuroeconomics; neuroscience), sociology (6%; includes demography, biodemography, social environment), and medicine (4%, includes pediatrics, psychiatry, medicine and family medicine). The remaining respondents identified their primary disciplines in other behavioral, social, or biological sciences, public health, engineering or clinical fields.

Individual respondents had the option to indicate a primary role from a drop-down menu on the RFI response form. The respondents who identified primary roles selected them as follows: researcher (61%), university/college instructor (18%), administration or government (14%), clinician (4%), and patient advocate, education (K-12), policy and general public (< 2% each).

The Analysis
NIH program directors conducted a preliminary analysis of the RFI qualitative data to inform the development of funding opportunities for the next fiscal year. To achieve this goal, the subcommittee engaged in a collaborative process to identify key themes in the 352 responses as related to three areas: 1) opportunity type (research, training or shared resources), 2) scientific focus, and 3) methodological /measurement approaches. This process involved three steps: 1) developing a coding scheme, 2) applying these codes to the data, and 3) organizing the coded responses by their main themes.

During this preliminary analysis phase, the team expended considerable thought and effort to examine the responses to abstract general themes, while also considering the responsiveness of the RFI submissions to the goals of the OppNet program. The resulting abstraction of scientific themes yields an important starting point to discuss b-BSSR opportunities relevant to OppNet.

What overarching areas of interest emanated from the RFI?
Our analysis found suggestions for NIH to support specific research areas, as well as for training associated with these areas, development of shared resources to support such research, and continued efforts to improve methodology and measurement in the behavioral and social sciences. The scientific themes that emerged from the data include, and are not limited to the following:

  • Decision making
  • Cognitive and emotional processes
  • Social, personality and cultural factors
  • Health behaviors and disparities
  • The intersection between behavior and gene/environment interactions
  • Lifespan/developmental perspectives
  • Psychosocial stress
  • Sleep and circadian rhythms
  • Neurobiology/neuropsychology

The list above is not exhaustive, but it articulates broader themes that reflect individual responses. Many submissions reflect the complex transdisciplinary nature of contemporary health research, suggesting that across these scientific themes research is needed that spans disciplinary boundaries and levels of analysis and demonstrate strong interests to develop the field rather than to request precisely delineated funding opportunities. Multiple responses demonstrate interests in methodologies that complement each respondent’s respective discipline.

For example, applied researchers’ responses frequently state an interest in basic research for more comprehensive understanding of individual and group cognitive processes. In turn, basic researchers express interest in genetics and neural mechanisms; some responses from basic researchers reflect their interest to collaborate in applied and translational studies. Numerous responses elucidate the need for basic measures not simply to improve our knowledge in this regard but also to capture the dynamic nature of human beings alone, in social settings, and in particular environments. Not surprisingly, improved statistical models to handle large quantities of multi-level data from, for example, genomics, bioimaging, ecological momentary assessment, geographic information systems, use of social network sites, etc., are recurring themes in these responses.

Use of the latest technologies for conducting research (e.g., biomarker development, brain imaging) and in recruitment and followup of human participants appears throughout these data. Several responses articulate the necessity for animal model research. Theoretical and conceptual model development, basic research over the lifecourse, and the need to include disciplines that NIH has seldom funded to date (e.g., behavior economics, industrial psychology) are other recurring themes. The relevance of b-BSSR to prevention and adherence intervention research frequently occurs as well. These four paragraphs reflect only the more frequently recurring topics from the 350+ submissions; while this brief summary report does not delineate the less frequently recurring topics and specific individual ideas in the dataset, NIH is considering all submissions in OppNet’s strategic plans.

How will NIH use these results?
First, OppNet will use the RFI data to inform the strategic planning process for new funding opportunities and other scientific initiatives to be launched in fiscal year (FY) 2011. Second, these data will inform the scientific focus of a summer/fall 2010 meeting with members of the extramural research community for additional input on b-BSSR research areas with the greatest potential for making a significant impact in basic research and human health. Information about this meeting will be posted as soon as it is available on the OppNet website (http://oppnet.nih.gov/index.asp).

NIH thanks all of the participants for their careful and considered response to our Request for Information. We hope this brief report demonstrates our commitment to an ongoing dialogue with the relevant stakeholders as OppNet continues to develop funding opportunities for cross-cutting basic behavioral and social sciences research that is broadly relevant to human health.

You are welcome to submit your thoughts on this preliminary report of the OppNet RFI results to infooppnet@nih.gov.

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