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An Interview with David Abrams, Former Director of OBSSR

Interview with Dr. David Abrams

By Patricia Kobor

David Abrams recently left the position of Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to head the Schroeder Research Institute at the American Legacy Foundation. As the third director of the office that was established to promote and coordinate behavioral and social sciences research at NIH, Dr. Abrams has a unique perspective about the state of the science at NIH now, and trends for the future. Pat Kobor of the APA Science Government Relations Office asked him a few questions for PSA readers. Dr. Abrams’ “exit interview” is excerpted below. The full interview will appear in the June issue of SPIN Science Policy Insider News. [now APA Science Policy News]

APA: During your three years as OBSSR Director, which accomplishments are you most proud of?

Abrams: I hope I made a strong case for investing more research resources in understanding “brain and behavior in its social and physical context” as an integrated “system within systems”. This is the last major frontier to be conquered. We now have unprecedented tools and technology to study behavior in context in real time (e.g., using the growing global cyber-infrastructure, powerful computers to run system dynamic and agent based modeling, spatial analysis, powerful imaging and other measurement tools, a changing social networks and social contagion based on the internet, personal digital devices and other emerging informatics, and communications technologies). As Thomas Friedman states “The World is Flat.” If we do not obtain new insights into the nexus of “brain-behavior-social-context” and obtain them soon, the consequences for our species’ long-term quality of life and survival could be dire. If we do invest in the behavioral and social sciences (BSSR) and conquer this last frontier, then there is hope for creating a new global model for a sustainable, just, optimally healthy, peaceful, and stable world.

I hope that in a small way my staff at OBSSR and I helped create a new vision for the future and a set of key messages for making BSSR stronger, more credible, visible and valuable in the eyes of the scientific and public constituencies we serve. This vision galvanized energy and interest in appreciating the extraordinary significant contributions already made by BSSR in the last decades. It also demonstrated the strong science base (basic and applied) and spelled out the critical role played by BSSR within and outside of the NIH in improving the nation’s health and wellbeing. An immediate challenge for the upcoming election is to show clearly how our science can contribute substantially to solving the growing health care crisis and address the urgent needs for health care reform.

Some concrete examples of how we at OBSSR demonstrated the value and potential for BSSR to improve our nation’s physical and mental health and longevity include: (a) the 10th anniversary celebration of Dr. Norman Anderson’s establishment of OBSSR and Dr. Raynard Kington’s continuation of that mandate. The celebration was a visible and credible event. It showcased the amazing accomplishments, substantial returns on investment, health care cost savings and other advances in basic science that BSSR achieved in the last decades (for details see the new OBSSR strategic prospectus); (b) The development, production and dissemination of the new and strongly collaborative strategic prospectus. The prospectus is intentionally a work in progress. A prospectus can and must be updated as the landscape of new discovery and technology is changing so rapidly and transforming what we know and what we will need to know that will make a difference in improving our national health status (also see Mabry, Olster, Morgan & Abrams, 2008 for details); (c) OBSSR was strengthened by redefining its staff responsibilities and by hiring several new staff, and establishing a new NIH-wide steering committee composed of the leaders of the BSSR programs within those Institutes and Centers (ICs) that have strong BSSR portfolios; (d) Creating a new position for a full-time communications officer dedicated to BSSR at NIH. Developing and implementing a communications plan to send information and to make key target audiences more aware of the discoveries, value, achievements and future potential of investing in basic and applied BSSR. I also proactively reached out to communicate with many key audiences within and outside of government (e.g., National Science Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, medical schools, public health and health professions like nursing and social work researchers, biomedical and the many BSSR societies) to educate, build transdisciplinary bridges, represent the diverse BSSR scientific community as a unified whole (a big tent coalition), and outline partnership opportunities at the many annual meetings of the biomedical and BSSR research societies; and (e) OBSSR has funded several new initiatives in critical areas including: genes, behavior and the social environment, systems thinking, complexity and systems sciences, integrative transdisciplinary approaches to eliminating health disparities and making the conceptual case for more vertical “systems science” integration of biology, behavior, social, and population sciences (see Mabry, Olster, Morgan & Abrams, 2008), and in advancing new methods measures and technologies to examine the role of stress in gene-environment interactions.

BSSR is an essential partner. Behavior is the only bridge between biology and society (the natural and human-built social and physical environment in which we live). You can’t get around behavior, crawl under it or try to jump over it. You can’t avoid dealing with behavior because behavior and behavior change is the ultimate final common pathway to improved health and quality of life at individual, proximal group, community, societal, policy and global levels of structural complexity. You must embrace the need for understanding human behavior and the brain in its social context. This is the grandest challenge of all the challenges we have left at this critical moment in time for humanity.

APA: What sort of trajectory for the behavioral and social sciences do you see at NIH? Are opportunities getting better, worse, staying the same?

Abrams: This is a difficult question to answer. The statistics that code for BSSR at NIH, that are admittedly rather global and have a significant degree of subjectivity to them, suggest that BSSR is at about the same level of funding as it was five years ago and that BSSR did quite well in the doubling of the NIH budget prior to that. However within specific Institutes, and perhaps especially within NIMH, where the largest amount of basic and applied BSSR has historically been supported, there have been some troubling trends and changes in program priority that seem to have diminished some areas of BSSR. These are indeed troubling trends. There is substantial concern that things could get worse across the board as other ICs fall back to their “core biomedical” values during lean times and see BSSR as expendable and not a part of these core values.

However many fields are changing rapidly in biomedicine and in BSSR domains. One has to determine if a previously productive program of research is now obsolete or unlikely to yield more insights and thus should be phased out in favor of a new area of extraordinary opportunity. As we see more integrative transdisciplinary research, especially of the sort that embraces the vertical integration of biology with behavior, social, physical, population, public health and economic environmental disciplines, it may get harder to make the determination of what is “pure BSSR” whether it is basic or applied (e.g. in the fields of cognitive and social neurosciences, behavioral and developmental epigenetics or behavioral economics). In general I think BSSR is substantially underfunded, but that here are enormous emerging opportunities for partnerships between BSSR, biomedical and public health sciences, fueled by the amazing developments in computer sciences, mathematical modeling, imaging, engineering, cybernetics and systems theory, spatial and geographic positioning (GPS) analysis, micro-sensor and real time tracking systems, and the informatics and communications technologies within a growing global cyber-infrastructure (see Mabry, Olster, Morgan and Abrams, 2008). BSSR must position itself to take full advantage of these opportunities if it is to survive and be a force for the future. This will require transformations in BSSR training programs and in producing the next generation of BSSR scientists who are more strongly versed in these new scientific domains and extraordinary areas of opportunity. As we steer the BSSR community “automobile” into the future, we must look forward through the windshield at the road ahead in the 21st century, rather than keep looking backwards in the rear view mirror of what used to be, hoping to resurrect “the good old days” of BSSR research in the mid 20th century.


Mabry, Patricia L., Olster, Deborah H., Morgan, Glen D., and Abrams, David B., “Interdisciplinarity and Systems Science to Improve Population Health: A View from the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, in press, 2008.