Feature

Psychology will say farewell to one of its most influential advocates next month when Norman B. Anderson, PhD, steps down from his position as director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Anderson will become professor of health and social behavior at the Harvard University School of Public Health. He will also serve as vice president for research and development at Behavioral Sciences Unlimited, a new start-up company that hopes to disseminate research-based behavioral interventions to health-care professionals, worksites, schools, community organizations and the public.

He will be difficult to replace, as a dynamic and charismatic advocate for behavioral and social sciences research at NIH.

"Norman Anderson has done a superb job with this new NIH office," says NIH Director Harold Varmus, MD. "Advocating effectively for behavioral research at the NIH, bringing distinguished scholars to our campus and developing trans-NIH initiatives, he has set a high standard that we will try to meet in our search for an appropriate successor."

Anderson is the first director of OBSSR--an office created by Congress five years ago to coordinate NIH's behavioral and social sciences research. Although he started with a tiny staff, little money and no authority, Anderson has built the office into a strong and respected presence with NIH's Office of the Director, say science policy experts.

This year, in fact, OBSSR's main operating budget has more than tripled from $2.6 million to $9 million. It has coordinated the funding of many trans-institute behavioral and social science research initiatives, as well as conferences and workshops, to promote interdisciplinary research that includes the social and behavioral sciences.

"We couldn't have had a better person as the first director of this important office," says Richard McCarty, PhD, APA's executive director for science. "Norman laid the groundwork well, putting together a strategic plan and building relationships with the institutes and centers at NIH. His vision is what has helped establish the reputation of the office as an asset to further the mission of NIH--not a constituent-driven, special-interest office."

"His shoes will be exceedingly difficult to fill," adds psychologist Margaret Chesney, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco.

Leaving his mark

In fact, one of Anderson's main missions was convincing NIH staff that OBSSR was an important resource for the agency, not just for behavioral and social scientists.

"We needed to demonstrate that we were doing this to ultimately make NIH work better," says Anderson. "I tried to keep in mind a revised version of John F. Kennedy's famous quote, 'Ask not what NIH can do for behavioral and social science, ask what behavioral and social science can do for NIH.'"

He believes he's proven OBSSR's worth to the agency, in part, by educating the larger NIH community of the integral role the behavioral and social sciences play in all aspects of health and medicine.

"Most importantly," says Alan Leshner, PhD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, "he established and implemented a very effective educational project for Dr. Varmus that served to increase his understanding and appreciation of behavioral research."

Adds Anderson: "The office is now viewed both within and outside NIH as doing work that is important to the overall goals of health science. Within NIH, the office is a vital part of the scientific and intellectual mission of the institution. We've been called upon to assist in the formulation of major NIH-wide policies, such as the reorganization of peer review, the development of NIH plans for research on health disparities and on violence, and the development of institute-specific research plans."

Although OBSSR's budget has hovered around $2.5 million, it has been able to organize research initiatives funded by multiple NIH institutes totaling more than $73 million. Topics have included violence against women, health behavior changes and interdisciplinary training. The highlight of these initiatives, Anderson says, is last year's creation of five mind/body centers that will research the interaction of social, behavioral, psychological and biological processes.

"There is no doubt that behavioral science is stronger at NIH because of Norman," says Chesney. "There are the tangible symbols, such as the big new mind/body centers, as well as less immediately apparent changes. For example, he was able to help each institute director identify the importance of a behavioral and social science agenda within his or her own arena."

Staying connected

Though Anderson will leave NIH in March, he plans to continue work on several key projects initiated under his direction. In particular, he will have a significant role in completing an outline of behavioral and social science research priorities requested by Varmus to help guide OBSSR's activities.

OBSSR asked the National Research Council's board on behavioral, cognitive and sensory sciences to assist in the effort to set these priorities. The board formed the Committee on Future Directions in the Behavioral and Social Sciences to formulate a report detailing research priorities, which it will complete early this year. Anderson will then assist OBSSR to implement the committee's recommendations.

Other projects that he will continue to work on include:

  • A collaboration between OBSSR and the Social Science Research Council in New York to develop guidelines for interdisciplinary research between behavioral and biomedical researchers.
  • An OBSSR-sponsored conference scheduled for June at NIH entitled "Toward higher levels of analysis: progress and promise in research on social and cultural dimensions of health," which will inform the development of a trans-NIH research agenda in this area.
  • A research agenda on religion, spirituality and health based on an OBSSR workshop held late last year.

Anderson will also serve as advisor to the committee searching for his successor. "The office director has to become a scientific generalist and be attuned to the needs of multiple constituencies," he says. "The needs of behavioral and social scientists and the field are paramount, but other important stake holders include NIH, the Department of Health and Human Services administrative hierarchy, the behavioral and social science staff in the institutes, advocacy groups, Congress and the public at large."

One of Anderson's greatest contributions will be as a role model to scientists interested in applying for his job, says Pat Kobor, APA's director of science policy.

"Because of the good work that Norman and his staff have been able to do, with very modest resources," she says, "I think OBSSR is seen as a place where a committed scientist can make a difference."

Time for a change

Anderson announced his decision to step down the same day that Varmus made public his plans to leave NIH. But Anderson dismisses suggestions that his leaving NIH at the same time as Varmus signals a weakening of support at NIH for the behavioral and social sciences and therefore a poor time for anyone to try to fill his shoes.

"My announcement was tied to the fact that behavioral science and the OBSSR have such a strong presence at NIH," he says. "The trend, in fact, is for an even greater role for our field. So it is because things are going so well that I felt now would be a good time for a new OBSSR director to come in."

And the Harvard position seemed like the ideal opportunity to launch the next phase of his academic career, he says. His main area of research will be understanding and reducing health disparities based on socio-economic status and ethnicity. And he will assist Harvard's new multidisciplinary Center for Society and Health with the development of a strategic plan for its research and dissemination activities related to the social context of health.

"The work will allow me to fulfill several of my intellectual, leadership and administrative needs at once," says Anderson. "It should be a lot of fun."

"Norman Anderson has done a superb job with this new NIH office--advocating effectively for behavioral research at the NIH, bringing distinguished scholars to our campus, and developing trans-NIH initiatives."

Harold Varmus

NIH director