The mood was upbeat and enthusiastic for the 50 participants, with 20 more on teleconference, who gathered March 11 for the third annual NIEHS-led Federal Interagency Briefing regarding the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Disaster Research Response Program (DR2), at the NIH Natcher Conference Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Representatives from numerous federal agencies came to learn about advances in the DR2 Program and share information about their activities to improve disaster research.
NIEHS Senior Medical Advisor Aubrey Miller, M.D., spoke optimistically of the challenges ahead and the progress made thus far toward the goals of mounting timely responses to disaster and facilitating research that will lessen or prevent health impacts. “There are such great opportunities beginning to develop,” he said. “I’m really excited by the progress we’ve made over the past year.”
Miller and the other partners on the DR2 team organized and moderated the meeting, including specialists from the National Library of Medicine (NLM), which collaborates with NIEHS in running the NIH DR2 program.
The event featured representatives of agencies involved primarily in health and safety, as well as those with missions related to natural resources, environment, national defense, homeland security, federal disasters, commerce, and agriculture, along with leaders from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Academies of Science.
Bringing resources together
“We have limited capacities [individually],” Miller told attendees, “but together we have great capacity.” Many participants mentioned the critical need for those in the disaster response and research community to share knowledge about available resources and to optimize existing programs and networks.
Stacey Arnesen, head of the NLM Office of the Disaster Information Management Research Center, addressed information needs when she referred to the constantly expanding online resources (Zika Virus Health Information Resource Guide) of DR2.
Chip Hughes, director of the NIEHS Worker Training Program, described efforts by grantees to conduct worker training for first responders during disasters, such as the World Trade Center attack, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the Gulf oil spill, and lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. He reported on disaster simulations in Los Angeles in 2014 and in Houston in 2015, as well as an upcoming exercise July 19 in Boston. Such events involve academic institutions, state and local health officials, community groups, industry, and federal agencies, including Department of Homeland Security specialists.
Joan Packenham, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Human Research Compliance, outlined efforts to develop preapproved Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to facilitate disaster research, ensure confidentiality, and protect the health and welfare of subjects. Packenham pointed to the new NIEHS IRB Best Practices Working Group, which is made up of 60 experts from government and academia, IRB officials, representatives of community groups, disaster survivors, and first responders. The group, established in February 2016, will meet in person July 27-29 in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
Several speakers observed during the meeting that the need for rapid funding is a common issue in all disasters. Even fast-track grant approval still takes precious time away from response and research. NSF is one of the few agencies that can provide truly rapid response funding at this time.
In his closing remarks, Miller stressed the advantages of engaging a broad spectrum of partners — federal agencies, universities, nonprofits, the private sector, and state and local governments — in establishing response and research protocols and partnerships well before the next disaster strikes. He also outlined future plans for the DR2 Program to work toward improving the collection of timely exposure measurements, along with health information, broad-based data collection through mobile devices, mining big data, and application of evolving toxicology tools to support disaster research.
(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)