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Environmental Factor, March 2013

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Council approves concepts, shares budget concerns

By Ernie Hood

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.

Birnbaum always seems to enjoy reporting to Council on the most recent scientific advances achieved by NIEHS grantees and intramural scientists. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Gwen Collman, Ph.D.

Collman reported that in FY 2012, research project grants (RPGs) represented 76.6 percent of the $248 million DERT portfolio, with R01s comprising 70.6 percent of the RPGs. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Thomas McKone, Ph.D. and Thomas Gasiewicz, Ph.D.

Council members Thomas McKone, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, left, and Thomas Gasiewicz, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester, listened intently to a presentation during the long, but productive, session. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Lisa Conti, D.V.M. and Viola Waghiyi

Council members Lisa Conti, D.V.M., from One Health Initiative, left, and Viola Waghiyi from Alaska Community Action on Toxics, each contributed several important comments during the course of the meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The 138th meeting of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council Feb. 20-21 followed a brisk schedule, including the usual briefings from NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., designed to bring Council up to date on recent Institute activities and achievements.

Council approved two concepts, enjoyed two exciting scientific presentations (see related story), and heard presentations on an NIH Common Fund initiative related to metabolomics technology; the recently released report of the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Coordinating Committee; and ongoing NTP work on a new approach to systematic review. The second day of the proceedings was devoted to a closed session for consideration of grant applications.

Birnbaum: budget issue changing almost daily

Given the looming potential difficulties, Birnbaum’s calm recitation of the current budget situation was laudable. She noted that the government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires March 27, when a shutdown would be triggered if Congress does not pass either a budget or another CR.

“If they were to pass another six-month CR, we can live with that, because at least we would know how much money we would have at the end of the fiscal year,” she told Council. “But if they start doing what they did in FY 2012, when they went to weekly and even sometimes daily CRs, there’s complete chaos and a huge amount of effort and funds spent in order to deal with it.” She said that the general feeling seems to be that Congress will ultimately not allow a government shutdown to take place.

Reports to council

As always, Birnbaum also briefed Council on NIEHS legislative activities, news and highlights, scientific advances, and awards and recognitions earned by staff and grantees since its September 2012 meeting. She updated the group on the status of the new NIEHS strategic plan, noting that NIEHS leadership recently received implementation plans from working groups devoted to the eight transdivisional priorities identified in the plan – epigenetics, inflammation, stem cells, the exposome, predictive toxicology and disease, global environmental health, knowledge science and data management, and the website and social media. She also shared background information about the recent changes in the NIH and NIEHS logos.

Collman reported on DERT staff changes, and highlighted the Worker Education and Training Program (WETP) response to Superstorm Sandy, which has included training more than 400 workers on-site and distributing more than 35,000 informational booklets to aid worker health and safety. She provided Council with a summary of FY 2012 NIEHS research grant activities, including an overall success rate of 14.6 percent for the year’s grant applications, and described planned requests for applications (RFAs) and program announcements for FY 2013.

Andrew Rooney, Ph.D., from the NTP Office of Health Assessment and Translation (OHAT) provided a status report on the draft OHAT Approach for Systematic Review and Evidence Integration for Literature-based Health Assessments. The draft approach was presented to the NTP Board of Scientific Counselors last December, and was released for public comment on Feb. 26. Eventually, two case studies will be included, and an updated guidance document will be released.

Council voted to approve concepts involving proposed new topics for the Small Business Innovation Research grants program, and new RFAs planned for the NIEHS neurodegeneration research portfolio.

The next Council meeting is scheduled for May 14-15.

(Ernie Hood is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

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