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Birnbaum Reflects on First Year as Director

By Eddy Ball
February 2010

Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
"I think the work we've done on the hill has paid off," Birnbaum told employees. The new budget, she noted, includes a record 4.1 percent increase for NIEHS - the largest percentage increase of any NIH IC. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A filled speaking hall watches a woman speaker
A few seats remained unoccupied in Rodbell Auditorium because the talk was webcast throughout NIEHS and to off-site staff members. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS Special Assistant to the Scientific Director Joel Abramowitz, Ph.D.
NIEHS Special Assistant to the Scientific Director Joel Abramowitz, Ph.D., left, seemed gratified by Birnbaum's praise for the showcase of research he organized for Science Day in November 2009. Health Scientist Administrator Annette Kirshner, Ph.D., center, shared in kudos for stimulus grant funding, and Birnbaum congratulated Principal Investigator Paul Wade, Ph.D., rear, for achieving tenure in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A woman smiles within a group of onlookers at a meeting
Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) co-chair Rachel Frawley, second from front, smiled as Birnbaum praised employee generosity that led to record contributions in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On Jan. 12, just a week shy of her one-year anniversary at the head of the NIEHS/NTP, Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., made her first annual state-of-the-Institute presentation to employees and contractors. Birnbaum spoke to a near-capacity crowd in Rodbell Auditorium with a live webcast to staff at off-site locations.

Listen to Excerpts from Birnbaum's Presentation

With a record increase in budget and other successes to her credit in 2009, Birnbaum was understandably upbeat as she described the fruits of her travel-heavy year and looked forward to the anticipated outcome of initiatives underway. She introduced several new hires and discussed leadership searches underway to put in place a permanent scientific director, director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training, deputy director, education director, new Bethesda liaison staff, and, later in 2010, a clinical director.

"As far as I'm concerned," Birnbaum told staff, "it's been a great year - very, very exciting, very, very demanding. I've worked harder than I ever believed was possible, and I think it's made a difference in terms of our budget, our reputation, and our recognition as we move forward."

On the front lines in Bethesda and Washington

On average during 2009, Birnbaum spent a day and a half to two days every other week in Bethesda and Washington helping to make NIEHS a more integral part of NIH. "Frankly, guys," she observed, "when we're out of sight, we're out of mind" - which she said affects the budget and NIEHS participation in NIH activities.

Birnbaum explained that she testified before congressional committees twice last year and visited more than 25 offices of congressmen and senators, spreading the NIEHS mantra of prevention - that "you can't change your genes, but you can change your environment."

Birnbaum also made progress establishing and expanding partnerships with sister NIH institutes and offices (ICs) and other federal agencies. She pointed to a cost-saving, facilities-sharing agreement with the neighboring U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and added, "I've also reached out to our stakeholders and advocacy groups to keep NIEHS at the head of environmental science research and public health advocacy."

Maintaining visibility worldwide

Birnbaum showed no sign of the jet lag she must have experienced on her trip the previous week to China as part of the NIEHS global health initiative for a joint workshop on cancer and the environment (see Science story(/2010/february/science-delegation.cfm)) - one of the many times she has crossed time zones traveling the U.S. and the world to spread the NIEHS message of preventing disease, especially complex disease, by better understanding the networks of interactions among genes and individual and collective environments. "I think that some of these presentations that I'm making," Birnbaum told the audience, "have really helped to re-establish NIEHS as the premier environmental health science research organization in the world" (watch video of pre-Copenhagen 15 event on "Public Health Impacts of Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions" in Washington).

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