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Environmental Factor, March 2012

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Strategic planning shapes discussion at Council meeting

By Eddy Ball

NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., addressing the panel

Birnbaum listed a number of important studies published by NIEHS scientists and grantees since the last Council meeting in September 2011, along with high-profile meetings about autism, neurotoxicity, nanomaterials, and bioinformatics. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D.

Thanking members for their thoughtful input on the strategic plan, Woychik said, “The process of strategic planning is as important as the finished product.” For many Council members, that process continued throughout their two-day meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Grace LeMasters, Ph.D., and Stephen Lloyd, Ph.D., listening to the presentation

Council members Grace LeMasters, Ph.D., left, and Stephen Lloyd, Ph.D., listened carefully to Woychik’s presentation. Lloyd said afterwards, “I think this is a really fantastic start,” but he also cautioned, “There may have to be as much of a paradigm shift in funding as how you identify the goals.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Palmer Taylor, Ph.D., sitting with other members

Member Palmer Taylor, Ph.D., sparked a discussion of ways to maximize resources. “Is there a way to coordinate these institutions and cores?” he asked. Seated with him are Julia Brody, Ph.D., left, and Andrea Hricko. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Even though it was scheduled as a 45-minute presentation during the first session of the group’s winter meeting Feb. 15-16, an update on NIEHS strategic planning (182KB) struck a chord with members of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council. The combination of a sobering report on budget prospects by NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and the presentation of the preliminary NIEHS strategic plan by Deputy Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., helped shape several of the discussions that followed.

Birnbaum opened the meeting with an overview (181KB) of some of the exciting accomplishments by NIEHS employees and grantees since the last Council meeting in September 2011, including the final steps toward recruitment of her permanent leadership team. Early on in her report, Birnbaum showed her audience figures on the NIH, NIEHS, Superfund Research Program, and Worker Education and Training budgets that underscored the challenges that lie ahead for NIEHS and its grantees.

“Given the economy, NIH and NIEHS are doing pretty well,” Birnbaum told the members. On several occasions during the two-day meeting, she also reminded her audience of the task facing the Institute. “Flat budgets really mean declining budgets.… In order to embark on new initiatives [such as those inspired by strategic planning], there are things that will have to come to an end.”

Moving forward in a new budgetary landscape

Woychik’s presentation (182KB) sparked a discussion of the NIEHS mission, vision, structural pillars, and strategic goals that continued an hour beyond its scheduled time and generated some creative thinking about how to advance environmental science with limited resources. Birnbaum, who has spoken often of the one NIEHS concept, emphasized that part of the strategic planning process involves better coordination of the Institute’s research divisions to maximize accessibility to resources.

NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D., described efforts on the NIH level to similarly reduce duplication and make clinical research resources more available to extramural researchers. He cautioned, however, “It’s a two-way street.” For resource sharing to become most effective, he said, underutilized inpatient clinical resources at university hospitals should become more accessible for intramural scientists.

While some members wanted to wordsmith the mission and vision statements of the draft strategic plan, they seemed unanimous in their support of its call for much more collaboration and partnership to foster the kind of team science that is needed to impact complex public health issues. As Woychik explained, Council will revisit the strategic plan at its May meeting, when he is slated to present the latest draft for the group’s consideration.

Revisioning the way grants are managed

Returning to its original agenda, Council members heard a report on the Draft NTP Monograph on Health Effects of Low-level Lead( and its peer review in November 2011 (see story), before moving into a presentation on the NIEHS grants portfolio and the grant award process by NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D.

Along with showing pie charts indicating the percentages of grants according to mechanism and average size of various types of grants, Collman described options for fine-tuning NIEHS funding philosophies in the years ahead. “We’re always trying to make the most awards with the funds available,” she said. “But we [also] need to be seriously dealing with constraints in our budget.”

The options she presented to Council included setting caps to larger awards and making across-the-board cuts to grants, while also aligning funding with strategic planning goals and maintaining parity in success rates for young and senior investigators. “We want to be perceived as being fair,” Collman explained.

New initiatives and science talks

The second day of the meeting opened with a concept presentation on “Microbiome/Environment Interactions” (54KB)  by NIEHS Health Scientist Administrator Lisa Chadwick, Ph.D., which members approved. Other reports focused on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)/NIH Tobacco Initiative (see text box) and efforts to enhance trainee outcome tracking.

The final two hours of the meeting were devoted to presentations on human research by NIEHS Acting Director of Clinical Research Fred Miller, M.D., Ph.D., and grantee Philippe Grandjean, M.D. (see related story).

Robert Croyle, Ph.D.

Croyle described new funding opportunities to better understand how to prevent some of the 443,000 deaths each year in the U.S. from tobacco use and secondhand smoke. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D.

Collman had obviously devoted a lot of thought to balancing strategic plan initiatives and budgetary constraints. She presented several options, but she was also eager to hear suggestions from Council members, several of whom are themselves grantees. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

New funding for tobacco research

Along with reports on NIEHS activities, Council heard a report on new funding opportunities resulting from the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, by Robert Croyle, Ph.D., director of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Signed into law June 22, 2009, the law empowers FDA to regulate the manufacture, marketing, and distribution of tobacco products to protect public health. The legislation authorizes the collection of user fees to fund regulatory activities. According to Croyle, about $150 million of the $500 million to be collected during fiscal year 2012 will be spent on regulatory-relevant scientific research.

Croyle made two important points about the program. The research parameters are very explicit, he said, restricting funding to science that can help FDA understand tobacco and its ingredients and constituents, tobacco addiction, tobacco marketing and labeling, and childhood tobacco use to inform regulatory efforts. Croyle pointed to smoking cessation studies as the kind of tobacco research that would not qualify under the program. FDA is currently preparing official guidelines for research that can be supported.

The second point Croyle emphasized was the program’s independence. The tobacco industry, he noted, has absolutely no control over how the user fees are spent or the scope of FDA regulatory activities.

Participating NIH institutes are NCI; NIEHS; the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; the National Institute on Drug Abuse; and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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