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A Conversation with New OBSSR Director Raynard Kington

By Susan M. Persons

Dr. Raynard S. Kington joined NIH 3 months ago to direct the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR). He succeeds Dr. Norman B. Anderson, who led the office since its inception in 1995. Kington received his M.D. from the University of Michigan, and his Ph.D. in health policy and economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to his NIH appointment, he served as director of the division of health examination statistics in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics, where he led the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Dr. Raynard Kington joined NIH as director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research last fall.

In the following interview, Kington shares his thoughts about the role of OBSSR at NIH and summarizes his experience as NIH associate director for behavioral and social sciences research since his arrival.

Getting acclimated to the world of NIH is no small endeavor. What has been your entry strategy and what have you learned?

This job is fundamentally about pushing the frontiers of the behavioral and social sciences related to health. My primary goal since coming to the office has been to learn as much as I can about both the directions the office has taken since it was created and how we can do an even better job in advancing the science in these areas in the future. I was fortunate to have followed Dr. Norman Anderson, who did an outstanding job in establishing the presence of the office at NIH. Although I had had some exposure to various parts of NIH in my previous job, I quickly realized how much I needed to learn. I am about halfway through meeting with each of the IC directors and many of the senior OD staff to learn more about how our office can help them pursue their missions in the behavioral and social sciences. I have also met with most of the professional organizations that represent the major behavioral and social science disciplines so that I can have a better idea of how this office can help them as well. I call it my listening tour.

Now that you have a better understanding of how the NIH functions, what are your plans for increasing support for behavioral and social sciences research?

OBSSR must serve many different roles for different IC's and different disciplines. I like to think of NIH IC's as being divided into three groups. First, those that already have large and established research agendas in the behavioral and social sciences; second, those that are just at the cusp of significant investments in these fields; and finally, those IC's who are really just beginning to appreciate the importance of the behavioral sciences for achieving their missions.

On the other hand, some of the behavioral and social sciences have a large and important presence at NIH, while others have only just begun to demonstrate their value in helping NIH to address important health problems. I hope that OBSSR can tailor its activities so that we can be of help to IC's and disciplines at each of these stages and ultimately to serve as a strong resource on campus. Fortunately, I have come just as several reports from the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine have been or will soon be completed on future directions for research and training in the behavioral and social sciences. We will rely on these as well our own internal efforts such as last year's planning conference on social and cultural dimensions of health, to help us and the IC's in setting priorities for behavioral and social sciences research at NIH.

Our office also is very interested in significantly expanding the research addressing the relationship between education and health. Countless studies have demonstrated a strong relationship between educational attainment and health, yet we know relatively little about the causal pathways connecting the two. This is one area where I believe our office can help to jumpstart the research.

As you know, NIH has a strong interest in eliminating health disparities. Your own research has included investigating the role of socioeconomic status in explaining racial and ethnic differences in health status. What role will the OBSSR play in this research area?

Even before coming on board, I was impressed by NIH's commitment to expanding its support of research in the area of disparities. It is important that we see this as an effort to answer fundamental scientific questions about why some people enjoy long and healthy lives while others appear to be locked into life trajectories notable for their relative brevity and poor quality. By placing these questions at the top of NIH's scientific agenda, NIH is sending an important message to the research community.

Our office sees this as a great opportunity to demonstrate once again the value of behavioral and social sciences in answering important and complex scientific questions related to health. We plan to do everything we can to make sure that the best and the brightest behavioral and social scientists rise to this challenge. We also hope to work closely with the new National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Traditionally, NIH has been known as a biomedical research organization. What can behavioral and social sciences research add to the mission of NIH?

In many ways, this is a great time for behavioral and social sciences in health research. Thanks to research advances in genetics and molecular biology and behavioral and social sciences, the health research community at large is finally moving beyond simplistic notions by which diseases are categorized as primarily genetic or biologic in origin versus primarily behavioral or environmental. The science is beginning to demonstrate the multitude of pathways by which behavioral and social factors interact with genetic and biologic factors in ways that were not even considered seriously not too many years ago. The historic artificial boundaries separating behavioral and social sciences from traditional biomedical sciences are falling. Many of the largest institutes have made substantial commitments to behavioral and social sciences, and the behavioral and social sciences are strongly supported in Congress and by the public at large as important disciplines that must be included when we think seriously about important health problems.

I have every confidence that when we look back decades from now, we will see this change — the welcoming of behavioral and social sciences as essential disciplines when applying science to solve health problems — as an important step toward improving the health of the public.

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