NIH is Revising Its Definition of Behavioral and Social Science and is Asking for Your Input

Submit Your Comments by 2/22

Click this link for details and to submit your comments

As APS announced previously, the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) wants your input on its proposed new definition of behavioral and social sciences research. OBSSR should hear from individual scientists like you: What do you think about the new definition? Does it accurately reflect the full range of psychological science research and behavioral research more generally? How will this definition be used?

Responses to OBSSR’s request are due February 22, 2019. This is a unique and important opportunity for you to shape the way your research is characterized by NIH.

APS’s comments (below) are aimed at ensuring that any definition of behavioral science—existing or new—accurately captures the full range of methods and perspectives in our field; makes clear the importance of connections with other scientific disciplines, particularly biology; and serves as a basis for strengthening NIH’s commitment to basic and applied research on health and behavior. APS also seeks assurance that this revised definition is not triggered by NIH’s recent attempts to redefine basic research with humans as clinical trials—an issue on which APS continues to advocate—and has asked that the OBSSR definition include a statement confirming that basic behavioral research is not a clinical trial.

To respond to OBSSR’s request for input, you should:

  1. Read APS’s response to the NIH draft definition of behavioral and social sciences, shown below
  2. Click this link to read the NIH draft definition of behavioral and social sciences
  3. Submit your comment to OBSSR using the IdeaScale platform, linked here; you are welcome to use the APS response as a guide
  4. Be sure to submit your comment by February 22, 2019
  5. Encourage your colleagues to also submit their feedback to OBSSR
  6. Share your response with Andy DeSoto at APS by emailing it to with the subject line “OBSSR Definition Response”

Click this link to read NIH’s draft definition of behavioral and social sciences and learn how to provide a comment.

Below follows APS’s response to NIH’s request for feedback on the draft definition of behavioral and social sciences.

APS to NIH: Ensure accurate, transparent accounting of NIH BSSR enterprise

The Association for Psychological Science (APS) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) efforts to update the definition of behavioral and social sciences research. The definition of behavioral and social sciences research has critical implications for how this type of research is recognized, supported, monitored, and disseminated by NIH. It also has important value in ensuring public understanding of these fields. APS’s comments focus on broader suggestions and concerns surrounding the behavioral and social sciences research definition and how that definition will be applied. Our comments reflect our concerns about the status of behavioral science at NIH; specifically, the continued disparity between the central role of behavior in all areas of health and the low level of support from NIH for basic and applied behavioral science research and training.

It is APS’s view that any updates to the definition of behavioral and social sciences research should improve the accuracy of assessment of NIH’s support for this type of research. NIH’s current practices classify research as behavioral or social if any small component within the project is behavioral or social in nature. We believe this approach may overstate NIH’s level of support for behavioral research. At the same time, existing support for behavioral research is likely to be underestimated because the proposed definition fails to capture the strong connections between behavioral sciences and biological sciences, including neuroscience, epigenetics, physiology, endocrinology, and other biology subdisciplines. These connections must be clearly and specifically identified in the definition of behavioral science to assess and communicate the full range of behavioral science research activities that are related to health. Congress, the scientific community, and NIH itself require an accurate representation of NIH’s behavioral and social science research portfolio to determine whether NIH is fully meeting its mission as a public health agency dedicated to reducing and preventing the incidence of such diverse conditions as heart disease, cancer, addiction, mental illness, diabetes, developmental disabilities, and the scores of other conditions that have behavioral and social factors at their core.

Given the diversity of the disciplines represented in this broad field, APS strongly encourages that the definition specify individual disciplines and their associated methodologies, perspectives, and applications. This would provide a more complete picture of the behavioral and social science being funded by NIH and contribute to greater public understanding of these disciplines. Related to this, and in the interest of transparency, APS encourages OBSSR to issue regular reports detailing NIH funding for behavioral and social sciences research and training by institute. This will allow the scientific community, NIH, and the public to better identify gaps in the research and training portfolio.

Finally, APS is concerned that the effort to revise the definition of behavioral and social sciences occurs in the context of a larger NIH effort to redefine basic behavioral research as clinical trials. The behavioral and social sciences research community is united in its opposition to this redefinition, and would strongly oppose the inclusion of this characterization of basic behavioral research in the broader definition being developed by OBSSR. We believe that the definition of behavioral and social sciences should include a clear statement that basic research with human subjects is separate from clinical trials.

We look forward to NIH’s response to these and other comments from the community and to working with OBSSR in the effort to improve the status of behavioral and social science research, including via the development of an accurate and appropriate definition of the sciences in this category.


We have similar concerns in Portugal, witnessing a tendency to subsume all basic research with human participants under notions of clinical trials or clinical research. The issue is not as immediate here, but I strongly support APS’s position on this issue.

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