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Environmental Factor, February 2012

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Public health officials work to keep research first during a tough economy

By Ian Thomas

Mike Stephens, senior director of policy with the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH)

Stephens noted that the average cost of an extramural grant has grown over the years from roughly $250,000 to a hefty $433,000. (Photo courtesy of Michael Stephens)

NIEHS Legislative Liaison Mary Gant listening to the talk

NIEHS Legislative Liaison Mary Gant, a veteran on the Washington scene, hosted Stephen’s visit and talk. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Weinberg)

During a Jan. 11 talk at NIEHS, Mike Stephens spoke on the growing national deficit, specifically its impact on federal funding of public health research. Currently, the senior director of policy with the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH), Stephens made it clear that scientists and administrators alike must be willing to rethink their way of doing business, if the field hopes to maintain its present level of commitment to research.

“Virtually every policy debate in Washington right now is somehow connected to the deficit,” said Stephens, who noted NIEHS’ status among NIH institutes and centers as the second largest funder of ASPH-affiliated research.

A half century of growth

Established in 1953 with roughly a dozen schools, ASPH now showcases an impressive roster of 49 educational institutions, including public health schools in Mexico, Canada, and France. With an annual enrollment of nearly 26,000 students, ASPH member schools award about 9,000 degrees per year in various career paths in public and global health.

“A lot of people tend to think of ASPH as simply being a collection of social work schools with a health emphasis, and they don’t take into account the strength of the basic science we conduct,” Stephens said, while highlighting several of ASPH member schools' contributions to the public health field, such as discovery of the first influenza vaccine in 1944, the original Salk vaccine in 1955, and contributions to worker health and safety standards. “If you look back at the portfolio of our achievements in the last 50 years, the strength of the work we produce is plainly evident.”

In addition to degree programs, ASPH member schools are also heavily involved in continuing education in the workforce, offering some 200,000 training sessions per year through its Public Health Training Centers.

Building a new model

Operating on an annual budget of approximately $3 billion, ASPH’s 49 schools draw a third of their funding from government sources. However, in a time when most federal budgets are either frozen or shrinking, Stephens was adamant that public health officials must be ready to make some tough decisions in the days ahead.

“For years, we’ve gotten accustomed to the idea of expanding budgets and growing resources, but the reality is that it just isn’t that way anymore,” said Stephens, who added that applications for NIH grants hit an all-time high in 2011. “We have some really promising science on the horizon from some outstanding young scientists, and it’s imperative to the future of the field that we continue to support those endeavors.” 

According to Stephens, options for lowering NIH grant costs for funding new investigators are likely to include reductions of overall salaries that are recoverable from a grant, the funding of a larger quantity of less expensive grants, capping the amount or number of grants given to a single investigator, and shortening the lifespan of a grant from its current 4.3-year average.

“The partnership between the schools of public health and NIH is an extremely natural one, not only from a business standpoint, but also a philosophical one, because of our mutual commitment to the overall public health,” said Stephens. “Still, most people in my community agree that the support for biomedical research has never been under greater stress than it is now and it’ll take all of us working together to maintain the level of excellence we’ve come to expect of that commitment.”

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison, and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

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