NIH Council of Councils hears Phelps discuss science of behavior change

Scientists urged to respond to NIH Request for Information on behavior change initiative.

It is always an event to be celebrated when a psychological scientist is invited to present her research to an influential National Institutes of Health advisory council. Elizabeth Phelps, PhD, of New York University was asked to discuss her research on how emotion affects cognition and decision-making at the Jan. 31 meeting of the NIH Council of Councils. This advisory body serves as the secondary layer of peer review for the NIH Common Fund, trans-NIH funding initiatives that are planned jointly by multiple institutes and centers. Phelps' research is funded in part by a Common Fund initiative called The Science of Behavior Change (SOBC). One purpose of the initiative is to identify and test basic mechanisms relevant in behavior change around which more effective interventions could be developed. Because SOBC is up for renewal, presentations by Phelps and initiative chair Richard Hodes, MD, director of the National Institute on Aging, were designed to demonstrate to the council that this area of research is deserving of additional support.

On Feb. 20, NIH released a Request for Information to gather information from scientists and other interested stakeholders about potential next steps for the SOBC initiative. Responses should be sent to NIH by March 6. Stakeholders are asked to comment on the value and significance of differing approaches for overcoming barriers to the development of a unified science of behavior change, and potential strategies for their achievement.

A videocast of the entire Council of Councils meeting is available on the NIH website. The presentation on SOBC begins at hour 3:16. Phelps' portion of the presentation begins at about hour 3:35.

Angela Sharpe of the American Psychological Association’s partner organization, the Consortium of Social Science Associations, wrote a useful summary of Hodes' portion of the discussion in the Feb. 10 issue of COSSA's "Washington Update," which we include below with permission.

For more information contact Pat Kobor.

COSSA Washington Update (Feb. 10, 2014)

NIH Common Fund Renewal of Science of Behavior Change Common Fund Initiative Discussed at NIH Council of Councils Meeting

During the Jan. 31 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Council of Councils meeting, members received a report from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) director and co-chair of the Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) Working Group on the Science of Behavior Change Program, along with a presentation, "Emotions and Choice: Mechanisms of Behavior Change," by Elizabeth Phelps, New York University. The Science of Behavior Change Working Group is led by NIA director Richard Hodes; Patricia Grady, director, National Institute on Nursing (NINR) and Richard Suzman, NIA. Jonathan King, NIA, is the working group coordinator.

Hodes reviewed the SOBC program, noting the importance of research from two studies in galvanizing the initiative. The first, by Steven Schroeder (2007, NEJM) which built on a 1993 study by Michael McGinnis (JAMA) that show "human behavior accounts for approximately 40 percent of the risk associated with preventable premature death in the U.S." These behaviors include smoking, drinking and drug abuse along with inactivity and poor diet which are known to contribute to many common illnesses and adverse health conditions.

"Behavior change is powerful," Hodes declared and cited the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) as an example. The DPP is a landmark study that was supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) that showed that lifestyle changes to achieve modest weight loss can reduce the incidence of type 2 diabetes by over half over a three-year period. The intervention helps stave off diabetes for at least ten years and substantially improves quality of life for those who receive it (see Update, May 13, 2013, Sept. 26, 2011).

Citing the "balkanization of behavior change," Hodes explained that the SOBC program's goal is to "enhance understanding of the basic mechanisms of behavior change across a broad range of health-related behaviors, and in so doing, unite often disparate research fields and bridge the gulf between basic and clinical research." He reported that in the process of developing SOBC between 2007 and 2009, the SOBC working group found that 17 NIH institutes, centers and offices supported research in behavior change in a mission-specific way. But many of the NIH program staff and grantees working on similar problems had never met or were aware of the advances made by other researchers.

Ultimately, the working group believes that eliminating such barriers to producing the science will lead to more effective and efficient interventions. He informed the council that "mechanisms of behavior change operate at multiple levels of analysis (e.g. social, contextual, behavioral, psychological, neurobiological and genetic) and at multiple timescales to drive the initiation and maintenance of behavior change." Likening the behavior change model to the medical model, Hodes explained further that designing effective behavioral interventions "is most difficult when one cannot identify intervening mechanistic processes or biomarkers in the disease process."

Hodes discussed the goals for SOBC and discussed three milestones associated with the program. Milestone one asks the NIH to support research in laboratory and field settings to delineate how mechanisms of behavior change respond in and outside the laboratory. Milestone two was to conduct a workshop on bridging laboratory and field work. Milestone three was to conduct a workshop on intervention targets and suggest new approaches. He emphasized that the SOBC meetings have been crucial in helping to "bring down disciplinary boundaries, starting collaborations, and expanding our perspectives on the mechanisms of behavior and behavior change."

Hodes reported that the next steps for the SOBC include two goals. Goal one is to implement the experimental medicine approach to behavior change. Deliverables includes: isolated key targets for interventions, assays to measure engagement of key targets and targets validated in the laboratory and in clinical studies through use-inspired research. Goal two is to strengthen the dialogue between clinical and basic scientists and promote use-inspired research. This includes publications from meetings, training on the use of instruments and findings from use-inspired research. The ultimate long-term goal, Hodes emphasized, is to "reshape NIH's approach to behavior change interventions by building a unified science."

Hodes also discussed the "tentative continuation budget" the SOBC Working Group was requesting to continue to support the SOBC initiative: $2.2 million (FY 2015), $5.2 million (FY 2016), $8.2 million (FY 2017), $9.4 million (FY 2018) and $6.4 million (FY 2019). The monies would support initiatives around training, target isolation, assay development, target validation and use-inspired research. He concluded by stressing that the SBOC "is well-poised" to continue this work.