Government Relations Update

Behavioral Research Program at NCI is reorganized

Psychological scientists can look to the National Cancer Institute for funding and research resources.

By William Klein and Mary O’Connell

William Klein, PhD Mary O’Connell 

The Behavioral Research Program (BRP), within the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute, was recently reorganized. BRP initiates, supports and evaluates a comprehensive program of research ranging from basic behavioral research to the development, testing and dissemination of interventions in areas such as tobacco use, screening, dietary behavior and sun protection, and provided $148 million in extramural funding in 2011. 

The American Psychological Association invited two BRP officials to outline the changes and their implications for psychological scientists. William Klein, PhD, has been Associate Director of BRP since 2009. He is a social psychologist with research expertise in self-judgment, risk perception and risk communication. Mary O’Connell is a Public Health Advisor in the Office of the Associate Director and manages communication activities for BRP.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) established the Behavioral Research Program (BRP) in 1997 under the direction of psychologist Dr. Robert Croyle. BRP maintains an extensive grant portfolio in health communication and informatics, tobacco control, preventive health behaviors, cancer screening and biobehavioral processes.  

In 2009, BRP initiated a long-range evaluation and strategic planning process to evaluate its research priorities and organizational structure. It was clear that the program had a strong and extensive portfolio of grants that spanned the cancer control continuum, from prevention through end-of-life care, and a talented and multidisciplinary scientific staff.  At the same time, the process highlighted changes in the scientific, budgetary and health landscape that presented numerous challenges and opportunities. Consequently, the program engaged in a process of re-organization. For more information on the re-organization process and background, please visit the BRP website

A centerpiece of the new programmatic structure was the development of the Science of Research and Technology Branch (SRTB). This new branch is poised to lead and coordinate activities focused on scientific approach and infrastructure, including analytic approaches to behavioral data, measurement and research design, use of novel technology and theory testing and development. SRTB serves as an integrative home for BRP’s many methodological tools and resources including the Team Science Toolkit and Grid-Enabled Measures (GEM) portal, and is engaged in the development of new funding opportunities in related areas.  BRP was fortunate to recruit Dr. William Riley, a clinical psychologist with expertise in behavioral theory and measurement, use of mobile health devices and adoption of sensor technology, to serve as SRTB Chief.

Interest in the value of some cancer screening tests (particularly in low-risk populations) has grown in recent years, and there is an increased awareness of the efficacy of additional health-care behaviors and processes. To address these and other research needs, the Applied Cancer Screening Research Branch was replaced by the Process of Care Research Branch (PCRB). Although PCRB will continue to support research on all behavioral aspects of cancer screening and intervention, it will also focus on organizational and team processes in health care, the use of genetic testing, coordination of care and shared decision making. A key component of PCRB’s work is to promote the adoption of multilevel approaches in care, with recognition that intervention at any one level (e.g., individual decision maker or medical practitioner only) is often insufficient. BRP was pleased to announce as PCRB Chief Dr. Stephen Taplin, a primary care MD with expertise in health-care processes and screening (read Dr. Taplin’s congressional testimony, “Breast Cancer Screening Improvement Means Considering the Entire Process.”)

Many psychologists are familiar with the former Basic and Biobehavioral Research Branch, led by clinical psychologist Dr. Paige Green-McDonald (read the APA interview with Dr. Green-McDonald on NCI’s approach to supporting basic and applied behavioral science). In recognition of the substantial role that psychological processes play in a wide array of cancer outcomes, the branch was renamed the Basic Biobehavioral and Psychological Sciences Branch (BBPSB). BBPSB will continue to conduct and support research on stress, physiological processes, motivation and basic decision making, but has expanded its focus on other relevant psychological processes, including affect, cognition and sensory/perceptual processes. 

What was previously the BRP Health Promotion Research Branch was renamed the Health Behaviors Research Branch (HBRB). As before, HBRB focuses on lifestyle behaviors such as physical activity, diet, sun exposure and viral exposure. It does so while considering a variety of influences on these behaviors, which include motivation, interpersonal relationships, community, the built environment and policy. HBRB also supports the study of mechanisms by which lifestyle increases cancer risk. HBRB is directed by Dr. Linda Nebeling, a nutritionist and Director of the NCI Transdisciplinary Research in Energetics and Cancer (TREC) Centers initiative.

The Tobacco Control Research Branch (TCRB) and Health Communication and Informatics Research Branch (HCIRB) have largely remained the same. TCRB is led by Acting Chief Dr. Michele Bloch, an MD and PhD in pharmacology. TCRB has long supported research across the entire spectrum of tobacco control – from cessation to policy – including research on the review of tobacco industry documents. HCIRB, under the direction of social psychologist Dr. Bradford Hesse, supports work on effective use and communication of health information, the development of innovative interventions and the establishment of paradigms for sharing health data and information. 

In addition to traditional investigator-initiated grants, BRP funds large centers, as well as program projects (P01s) and cooperative agreements. The program holds a substantial portfolio of R03 (small) and R21 (exploratory) grants, which provide useful opportunities for psychologists to initiate work that could eventually lead to an R01.  Potential grantees are encouraged to contact program staff (many of whom are psychologists) to discuss grant ideas and submissions. 

BRP’s goal is to increase the breadth, depth and quality of behavioral research in cancer prevention and control through support of a robust grant portfolio, scholarly publications, data collection, sponsored training opportunities and research tool development. To learn more about funding opportunities and our unique program, which is home to the Cognitive, Affective and Social Processes in Health Research Workgroup (CASPHR), the NCI Network on Biobehavioral Pathways in Cancer, the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS) and, please visit the BRP website.