Environmental Factor, October 2008, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Council Meets in Public Session
By Eddy Ball
Members of the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council met in public session on September 9 in Rodbell Auditorium. The group heard reports during the morning and approved unanimously a concept clearance for the Partnerships for Environmental Public Health program (see related story (https://factor.niehs.nih.gov/2008/october/extramuralupdate.cfm)) before entering closed session to consider grant applications.
The meeting began with the report by Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D., who opened his presentation with an update on the Institute's Corrective Action Plan (CAP) and developments since the Council's last meeting in May. During the summer, NIEHS staff completed the CAP, which was approved by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, M.D., and took actions necessary to begin to realize its short- and long-range goals. Wilson explained that NIEHS management plans to prepare quarterly progress reports and will update Council on the latest status at upcoming meetings.
During his report, Wilson reflected on the Institute's management challenge, "to propel NIEHS forward to a renewed future," and its overall scientific challenge, "to produce high quality information for high quality decisions" as the basis for regulatory measures to protect human health. "No one else does quite what we do," he told the audience, as he pointed to the extent to which regulatory agencies depend on studies by NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program for solid evidence of danger to human health.
As Wilson recounted the highlights of the past four months, he observed the unexpected death of Colin Chignell, Ph.D., the retirement of key investigators including Director Emeritus Ken Olden, Ph.D., and the honorary degree awarded Allen Wilcox, M.D., Ph.D., by the University of Bergen. He also noted that progress was being made in the selection of a new director for NIEHS from the 22 applications received in response the advertisement of the position.
Acting Scientific Director Perry Blackshear, M.D., D.Phil., made an impromptu presentation on the impact of the recent retirements and departures on the NIEHS Division of Intramural Research (DIR). He said that DIR has a strategy for filling three tenure-track investigator positions in the coming year.
Following updates by NIEHS Acting Deputy Director Bill Suk, Ph.D., NIEHS Associate Director Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D., and NIEHS Acting Director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) Dennis Lang, Ph.D., Council turned to the business of considering a concept clearance for the NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) program.
Presenting the PEPH program's plans for implementation, DERT Susceptibility and Population Health Branch Chief Gwen Collman, Ph.D., offered Council her definition of environmental public health (see text box). She said that the November 2007 Request for Information, a workshop held June 30 - July 1 (https://factor.niehs.nih.gov/2008/august/public-health.cfm) on the responses, and follow-up activities involving stakeholders and the DERT working group resulted in several goals.
Prominent among them are reassessing current programs and exploring new avenues of research to "make a synergistic program" to address comprehensively emerging and future environmental public health needs over the next decade. Collman explained that the PEPH program would also emphasize involvement of stakeholders during every step of the process, development of an evaluation component with appropriate metrics for every component, and increased education and training at every level.
The PEPH concept clearance was well received by Council members, who gave DERT the go-ahead to begin implementing the integrated program and, as Council liaison Stefani Hines commented, take "a beautifully written document" and "move from a concept to a vision."
A Working Definition of Environmental Public Health - Science to Action
Asked at earlier meetings about the meaning of "environmental public health," Collman was prepared at the concept clearance to offer the following definition that incorporates Wilson's commitment "to produce high quality information for high quality decisions" in the context of environmental public health:
"Environmental public health is the science of conducting and translating research into action to address environmental exposures and health risks of concern to the public. We see this being accomplished through the dissemination of science-based or research-generated information about environmental risks and diseases to community members and other stakeholders who have a need for the information to enact change in the spheres of influence that they have. By fostering partnerships between and among community residents and organizations, researchers and these other stakeholders in the process, we believe vital information about the linkages between exposure and disease can be used to promote health and reduce disease among populations at the highest risk."