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Advisory Council Meeting: An Engaging Discussion

By Eddy Ball
July 2007

John Essigman
Few of those who attended the opening session will forget MIT Professor John Essigman's assessment of the Council meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

a laptop computer
The May 30-31 event was also of interest as the first "paperless" Council meeting, thanks to the efforts of DERT Program Administrator Liz McNair. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ernie Takafuji
NIAID scientist Ernie Takafuji used some provocative graphics to underscore the importance of the trans-NIH CounterACT Initiative. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Elaine Faustman
University of Washington Professor Elaine Faustman expressed the Council's consensus opinion when she lauded the Undergraduate Diversity Training Program in Environmental Health Sciences as a good fit for the Institute. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Joseph Graziano
Columbia University Associate Dean for Research Joseph Graziano objected to Working Group recommendations on funding for Children's Environmental Health Centers. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

As the first morning of the spring meeting of the Council came to a close on May 30, a remark by member John Essigman, Ph.D., captured the essence of the day and a half event. "This is the most interesting council meeting I've ever been to," Essigman said as the Council adjourned for lunch after a morning of engaging discussion between Council members and NIEHS representatives.

By the time the meeting adjourned the next day, Council members had weighed-in on six reports and concept clearances, giving four their whole-hearted support. A report on funding the Children's Health Centers and a Concept Clearance proposal on a Global Environmental Health Initiative prompted Council members to share additional insights from their own experiences and expertise.

Council members expressed overwhelming support for the work underway in Biodefense Research at NIH and NIEHS, as reported by Ernie Takafuji, M.D., director, Office of Biodefense Research Affairs, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The trans-NIH effort, called the CounterACT program, promotes product-directed research into ways to improve the country's defense against bioterrorism.

The program funds research into interventions for chemical injury and the long-term sequelae of bioterrorism, rapid assessment of injuries, and early detection of the pathogens and hazardous chemicals used in attacks. The NIEHS contribution is being directed by Elizabeth Maull, Ph.D., program administrator in the DERT Susceptibility and Population Health Branch. Thus far, the program has funded 23 requests for applications and four Centers of Excellence nationwide.

The Council also unanimously approved the concept of an NIH NanoHealth Initiative presented by Assistant to the Deputy Director Sally Tinkle, Ph.D. Spearheaded by NIEHS, the initiative proposes an integrated, interdisciplinary program addressing critical research needs for the safe development of the nanoscale materials and devices that are increasingly a part of everyday life.

The initiative, Tinkle explained, draws upon the resources of NIH institutes and centers to improve understanding of engineered nanomaterials (ENM) science, biological response to ENM and diseases that may be induced by exposure. A fourth component of the initiative would involve development of advanced training programs within the context of established NIH grants and programs, as well as in joint efforts with public and private organizations.

Members of the Council also applauded the Concept Clearance proposal for a new Undergraduate Diversity Training Program in Environmental Health Sciences presented on May 31 by Mike Humble, Ph.D., of the DERT. Humble, a health science administrator in the Cellular, Organ and Systems Pathobiology Branch, is working with colleagues Branch Chief Pat Mastin, Ph.D., and Carol Shreffler, Ph.D., to recruit participants for the summer 2008 award date.

According to Humble, the program will operate under a T34 funding mechanism used by other institutes. It will support minority college students in their junior and senior years with mentoring and provide financial support for students and for curriculum development at participating institutions. Reviewer John Essigman, Ph.D., described the proposal as "a great idea for keeping the pipeline [of new scientific talent] full," and Reviewer Elaine Faustman, Ph.D., commented that the program "fits extremely well" with existing diversity programs at NIEHS.

Peter Spencer
Despite enthusiastic support by Oregon Health & Science University Professor Peter Spencer, the Council decided to delay consideration of the Global Environmental Health Initiative. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Two Initiatives on Hold

The first report Council heard during its spring meeting was presented by Consultant Daniel Krewski, Ph.D., on proposed changes by the working group he headed to funding mechanisms for the Children's Environmental Health Centers. Reviewer Joseph Graziano, Ph.D., called a proposal for limiting center funding for these programs, as the Working Group suggested, in favor of RO-1 funding, "very problematic." Center funding, he noted, gives grantees a greater degree of flexibility than directed funding and allows researchers to re-focus their work based on preliminary findings.

Earlier in the meeting, Schwartz had reassured Council that "We are fully committed to supporting research efforts in children's environmental health... [and] we are really interested in continuing this partnership with the EPA [Environmental Projection Agency]." The group wanted to make sure that this commitment extended to the current funding mechanism for the research network and the highly successful community-based approach in the programs.

At the suggestion of group members Daniel Liebler, Ph.D. and David Christiani, M.D., the group tabled until its September meeting a DERT Global Health Initiative Concept Clearance that it considered too general. Presenter William Suk, Ph.D., was commended by Reviewer Peter Spencer, Ph.D., for offering NIEHS "an extremely important initiative [and] an opportunity for extraordinary research discovery as well as contribution."

Although several members echoed Spencer's sentiments, the group still wanted more information about the way the proposal would affect spending priorities, how it would realize public/private partnerships, and specific programmatic details. In her comments about the initiative, member Kathleen Dixon, Ph.D., cautioned that doing more preliminary work could easily make the difference between the project's success and failure.

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