Because Social and Behavioral Research Improves Health and Quality of Life

By Mary Woolley, President & CEO, Research!America

Medical research empowers the development of new interventions to prevent, diagnose and treat—even cure—disease, but it is not the only scientific discipline crucial to advancing health. By fostering a better understanding of human behavior, preferences, and motivations, social and behavioral research reveals new strategies for achieving optimal health outcomes. Social and behavioral research provides the real-world context needed to ensure the products of medical research—prescription drugs, medical devices, surgical procedures, and more—benefit patients efficiently and effectively. And social and behavioral research is nothing less than crucial to achieving more progress in prevention. Underinvesting in this research squanders countless opportunities to improve the health of our nation.

Social and behavioral research, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and other federal agencies, as well as various foundations, enables us to understand patterns among groups and individuals to help address a wide range of medical and public health threats including seemingly intractable challenges such as injury and violence. For example, NIH and CDC have funded researchers at the University of Chicago to study the root causes of violent crime in Chicago, reviewing medical-examiner records of city homicides and finding that many violent confrontations begin over something minor, such as an insult. This information led them to explore interventions that could help people avoid costly decision-making mistakes in situations they commonly face. A cognitive behavioral program in Chicago helped teenage boys think before they act, dramatically reducing arrest rates among teens. Research like this is broadly supported by a majority of Americans (60%) who say there is value in better understanding and preventing injury and violence caused by preventable accidents, deliberate acts or neglect, according to a national public opinion survey commissioned by Research!America.

Social and behavioral research is also critical to addressing global epidemics.  During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, anthropologists studied how situational awareness and sociocultural factors in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone contributed to the spread of the disease locally. According to local tradition, the corpse must be “interrogated” or touched to determine cause of death: whether it was a natural death or one of “sorcery.” This traditional burial method was believed to cause 70% of the new cases of infection, according to the chief medical officer in Sierra Leone. Anthropologists engaged local communities to explain the medical risk of touching corpses which led to a solution that allowed local residents to view dead bodies and throw objects into the body bag but not touch them prior to burial, facilitating more productive relationships between doctors and local populations in responding to outbreaks. Social and behavioral research and interventions helped reduce the rate of infection as more health care workers were trained in prevention and control.

The role social and behavioral research has played in combating Ebola and reducing violence is emblematic of the high return to our nation of investing in these disciplines. It is clear, however, that advocates have work to do if we are to ensure our nation fully benefits from the life- and cost-saving potential of this research. For the past several years, NSF-supported social, behavioral, and economics research has been at risk of deep budget cuts. More broadly, absent a congressional bipartisan agreement to raise the stifling budget caps on fiscal year 2018, current federal investments in social and behavioral research is far from guaranteed.

It is time for social and behavioral researchers, and all of us who recognize the value of such research, to intensify our advocacy efforts. Call, write, or meet with members of Congress and encourage others to do the same. Connect the dots between social and behavioral research and better health.  Make the case for more investments. Your voice makes a difference. An overwhelming majority of Americans (82%) say that scientists are the most trustworthy spokespersons for science. When a non-scientist asks, “Why should we support social science?” the answer—put simply—is social and behavioral research improves health and quality of life.


Mary Woolley is the president of Research!America, the nation’s largest not-for-profit alliance working to make research to improve health a higher national priority. Woolley is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) and served two terms on its Governing Council. She is a recipient of the Adam Yarmolinsky Medal for distinguished contributions to the mission of the Academy over a significant period. She has served two terms on the National Academy of Sciences Board on Life Sciences, and currently serves on its Board for Higher Education and Workforce.  She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of Sigma Xi, the scientific honorary society. She is a Founding Member of the Board of Associates of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, a member of the board of the Institute for Systems Biology, a member of the University of Chicago Division of the Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine Council, and a former member of the National Council for Johns Hopkins Nursing. She holds two honorary doctoral degrees, from the Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) and Wayne State University. Woolley has served as president of the Association of Independent Research Institutes, as editor of the Journal of the Society of Research Administrators, as a reviewer for the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, and as a consultant to several research organizations. She has a 30-year publication history on science advocacy and research related topics, and is a sought-after speaker, often interviewed by science, news, and policy journalists.