October 10, 2012
by Sunil Iyengar, Director, NEA Office of Research and Analysis
Piano by Alaina Abplanalp Photography via Flickr
Culture is one of those words whose meaning can expand in many different directions, to a degree of inclusiveness that can induce vertigo. Still, for those of us in cultural policy, it can be refreshing if not downright inspirational to see the concept used in a way which, while recognizing the unique properties of the arts and humanities, offers a more comprehensive view—one that enlists those disciplines in improving knowledge about culture as a dynamic system of shared beliefs and practices.
At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they are doing just that. NIH’s Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network (OppNet) recently announced a grant opportunity for applicants seeking “infrastructure support to develop, strengthen, and evaluate transdisciplinary approaches and methods for basic behavioral and/or social research on the relationships among cultural practices/beliefs, health, and well-being.” As the announcement notes, “OppNet welcomes research teams that include expertise complementary to basic social and behavioral sciences, e.g., arts, ethics, humanities, law.”
Did you catch that? Arts and humanities experts are cited as examples of eligible applicants to this NIH grants program. The point is that these research teams would aim to “provide new insights into the relationships between aspects of culture and health.” According to NIH, “the team should choose a small project that demonstrates the power of [its] approach to deliver new insights that lead to improved health outcomes or facilitates the effectiveness of health research.” NIH will fund five to seven grants for a total of roughly $1.4 mil.
Because of OppNet’s larger mission, grant applications must have a “majority emphasis in basic behavioral and social sciences.” Nevertheless, arts and humanities researchers can play a significant role in the design and conduct of NIH-funded research strategies to improve health and well-being outcomes.
As NIH officials said during a NEA-sponsored public webinar on October 4, “culture” has acquired a murky and sometimes non-existent definition in the medical research community; at various times, it can be construed (wrongly) as a synonym for race and ethnicity or for “underserved” populations. The grants announcement states: “There is a need for research that improves the conceptualization and measurement of culture and does this in the context of health and social and behavioral processes that influence health.”
In the webinar, NIH does a good job of explaining why the arts are relevant to this area of inquiry; an accompanying PowerPoint gives contact information for aspiring applicants. The event was the first in this fiscal year’s (2013) series of public webinars showcasing work of federal partners belonging to the Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development.