NIH initiated the Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (OppNet) in November 2009 to expand the NIH portfolio in basic scientific inquiry that uncovers the mechanisms and processes that influence individual and group health-related behaviors. Originally conceived as a five-year endeavor, an evaluation by the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) recommended that NIH continue OppNet. This recommendation was based on the impactful scientific output supported by OppNet-funded projects which produced 391 publications cited 5,630 times between 2009 and 2017.
The STPI evaluation also surveyed OppNet-funded principal investigators, who reported that initial NIH funding through OppNet increased their likelihood to apply subsequent for non-OppNet NIH awards where and that previously they had considered their research unlikely to be funded elsewhere at NIH. In February 2018, PLoS One published an analysis of OppNet's K18 program which found that 59% of OppNet K18 awardees had obtained subsequent NIH research-project funding and that K18 costs-benefits to investigators suggested that OppNet continue investigator development and career awards.
Dedicated funding for OppNet ended in 2014; however, based on the accomplishments of the program, NIH leadership agreed to continue OppNet as an ongoing voluntary collaborative that monitors the NIH portfolio and emerging scientific trends to identify opportunities relevant to the NIH mission to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems. Current OppNet funding opportunities require trans-NIH coordination to achieve and for applicants’ proposed findings to have behavioral implications across disease and somatic conditions.
The Steering Committee identifies and monitors potential concepts for development across the agency. NIH's Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research provides infrastructure and other support for all OppNet’s activities. Individual Institutes and Centers designate extramural scientists to participate in teams that further develop concepts and recommendations to the Steering Committee. The STPI evaluation determined that OppNet’s concept development process is particularly unique as OppNet’s scientific ideas originate from many different sources including extramural public input, background literature reviews, NIH portfolio scans, and other gap analyses.
Ideas originate from both ICO directors and program directors. Regardless of the source of an idea, an OppNet concept develops through lively deliberations among Steering Committee members, concept team members, and additional NIH scientists. During OppNet’s first five years, a program-level Coordinating Committee provided guidance to concept teams and the ICO Director-level Steering Committee provided feedback and concept clearance. At present, the Steering Committee interacts directly with program-level concept teams. Once the Steering Committee approves a concept for FOA development, ICOs that work toward publishing a funding opportunity seek concept clearance from ICO Advisory Councils.
NIH staff who participated in the evaluation told STPI that they found concept team participation worthwhile given the FOAs and research projects generated, the expertise learned and shared, and the trans-NIH contacts made that likely would not have occurred through other means. OppNet’s unique structure helped develop a sense of community among behavioral, social, basic, and bench scientists across NIH who continue to collaborate through and outside OppNet current framework.