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Birnbaum Unveils Strategic Vision for NIEHS

By Ed Kang
June 2010

Birnbaum, at the podium in Rodbell Auditorium
Birnbaum, shown at the podium in Rodbell Auditorium, was poised and optimistic as she outlined her vision for a new five-year strategic plan for NIEHS and NTP. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On May 17, NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., provided employees and the public a vision for the Institute. This roadmap for future research complements the priorities offered by NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., just one week earlier during his visit to North Carolina (see story ( Birnbaum's eight priorities focus on public health and prevention - themes with unique relevance for NIEHS (see text box).

Birnbaum emphasized the opportunities provided by the nature of NIEHS work compared to other NIH institutes. She noted that although NIEHS is a member of the NIH family and shares NIH's overall mission and priorities, "We focus on defining translation a little differently" than the other institutes and centers have in the past because of the emphasis by NIEHS on primary prevention.

As she explained, "Unlike the traditional focus of NIH on mechanism of diseases to find treatments and cures, our work is to find ways to prevent problems that affect public health." She referenced the molecular, cell biology, and toxicology studies that provide the biological plausibility for understanding effects at the population level.

A conceptual shift

"In the old days, we looked at high dose chemical toxicity - chemicals that overwhelm the body's defenses by brute force," said Birnbaum, describing the shift within the scientific community in terms of understanding toxicity and exposure. However, she continued, "Chemicals can act like hormones and affect development at very low doses, and diseases can occur with very long latencies."

The basis of these biological changes appears to be epigenetic. "Our genetics, epigenetics, and our environment all lead to our susceptibility to disease, toxicants, and drugs. The last decade was the decade of the genome, [but] we need to look at the next decade as the decade of the epigenome."

From the first spark of an idea to a positive health outcome

The foundation for the director's vision is the dynamic interrelationship among science, policy, and people, which Birnbaum described as the "science-to-policy continuum." She said the best science builds on methods and data collection focused on diseases and issues, to inform policy related to prevention and public health. "We need to be involved in every step along this continuum - from the first spark of an idea to a positive health outcome," urged Birnbaum.

Birnbaum completed her vision statement by outlining the status of new leadership hires, including the scientific director and director of the Division of Extramural Research and Training. She also outlined the NIEHS Strategic Plan for 2012 through 2016 and mentioned an opportunity for employees and the community to provide input as part of the planning process.

Finally, as a compelling appeal for conveying the relevance of the NIEHS vision, Birnbaum closed her remarks by challenging staff, in whatever role they have, "to understand how the environment can impact public health."

(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

The Eight Priorities of the NIEHS Strategy:

  • Understanding the effects of low dose exposures
  • Determining how windows of susceptibility impact long-term health
  • Developing toxicology screening methods like the Tox21 program that develops high throughput rapid screening approaches to multiple endpoints
  • Examining how mixtures of chemicals and multiple stressors can alter our susceptibility and response
  • Expanding the clinical research effort
  • Characterizing the potential toxicity of emerging hazards, such as nano-engineered materials
  • Exploring the human health effects of climate change
  • Studying the impact of green chemistry on development of materials and processes

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