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Interdisciplinarity and Systems Science to Improve Population Health

A View from the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research

Patricia L. Mabry, PhD, Deborah H. Olster, PhD, Glen D. Morgan, PhD, David B. Abrams, PhD


Fueled by the rapid pace of discovery, humankind’s ability to understand the ultimate causes of preventable common disease burdens and to identify solutions is now reaching a revolutionary tipping point. Achieving optimal health and well-being for all members of society lies as much in the understanding of the factors identified by the behavioral, social, and public health sciences as by the biological ones. Accumulating advances in mathemat- ical modeling, informatics, imaging, sensor technology, and communication tools have stimulated several converging trends in science: an emerging understanding of epigenomic regulation; dramatic successes in achieving population health-behavior changes; and improved scientific rigor in behavioral, social, and economic sciences. Fostering stronger interdisciplinary partnerships to bring together the behavioral–social–ecologic models of multilevel “causes of the causes” and the molecular, cellular, and, ultimately, physiological bases of health and disease will facilitate breakthroughs to improve the public’s health.

The strategic vision of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is rooted in a collaborative approach to addressing the complex and multidimensional issues that challenge the public’s health. This paper describes OBSSR’s four key programmatic directions (next-generation basic science, interdisciplinary research, systems science, and a problem-based focus for population impact) to illustrate how interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary perspectives can foster the vertical integration of research among biological, behavioral, social, and population levels of analysis over the lifespan and across generations. Interdisciplinary and multilevel approaches are critical both to the OBSSR’s mission of integrating behavioral and social sciences more fully into the NIH scientific enterprise and to the overall NIH mission of utilizing science in the pursuit of fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to extend healthy life and reduce the burdens of illness and disability. (Am J Prev Med 2008;35(2S):S211–S224) © 2008 American Journal of Preventive Medicine


he vision of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) presented here provides an overview of the increasing role that transdisciplinary science and systems science methods are playing in transforming the understanding of the causality of health and disease in order to improve population-wide T

From the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, Office of the Director, NIH (Mabry, Olster, Abrams*), Bethesda; and the Tobacco Control Research Branch, Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, National Cancer Institute, NIH (Morgan), Rockville, Maryland.

*Affiliation at the time of research for this paper. Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Patricia L. Mabry, PhD, Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, 31 Center Drive, Building 31, Room B1-C19, Bethesda MD 20892. E-mail: mabryp@od.nih.gov.

well-being. OBSSR, situated in the Office of the Direc- tor of the NIH, is mandated to stimulate, integrate, and increase support for behavioral and social sciences research across the 27 institutes and centers that con- stitute the NIH. OBSSR’s other responsibilities include disseminating behavioral and social sciences research findings and providing advice to and communicating with the NIH Director, the legislature, other govern- ment agencies, the research community, and the gen- eral public on matters regarding behavioral and social sciences research. OBSSR serves as the nexus for cross-cutting research on the role that behavioral and social factors play in the etiology, treatment, and pre- vention of disease and in the promotion of health and improved quality of life. Additional information about OBSSR can be found at the Office’s homepage (obssr.od.nih.gov).

Am J Prev Med 2008;35(2S) © 2008 American Journal of Preventive Medicine Published by Elsevier Inc.

0749-3797/08/$–see front matter S211 doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2008.05.018

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