Environmental Factor, January 2007, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
NIEHS Enhances Outreach Efforts to Advocacy Groups
By Eddy Ball
In a reorganization of what was previously known as the Public Interest Liaison Group, the Office of Science Policy (OSP) has changed the group's name and expanded communication efforts between NIEHS and a group of advocates for disease, at-risk and environmental organizations. The group is now called the Public Interest Partners Group (Partners) and chaired by Nsedu Obot-Witherspoon, executive director for the Children's Environmental Health Network (CEHN).
In addition to CEHN, partners include representatives from the American Lung Association, Alzheimer's Association, World Wildlife Fund, Parkinson's Action Network, National Breast Cancer Coalition, Environmental Defense, Autism Society of America, West Harlem Environmental Action and other groups concerned with environmental health.
The organizations, together representing thousands of concerned individuals, are truly "partners," according to OSP Director Joyce Martin, J.D. "It's a two-way street," Martin explained. "NIEHS research funding has a direct impact on these groups and their members. We need to learn more about the priorities of these organizations, and they, in turn, need to know what we are doing to address their needs and concerns."
OSP has adopted a "plain English" nomenclature by renaming the organization "Partners," a term that better suggests the two-way communication involved. In addition, NIEHS has expanded the frequency of communication with its Partners. Between annual meetings, the group now meets with NIEHS senior staff about new initiatives via conference calls every four to six weeks.
These initiatives have included the Strategic Plan, the Gene-Environment Initiative and the Children's Environmental Health Research Review. OSP has scheduled the next conference-call meeting for January 25, when senior staff plan to present information about the collaborative Head-off Environmental Asthma in Louisiana (HEAL) study.
Other changes initiated under the leadership of Director David Schwartz, M.D., and implemented by Martin and her OSP staff include adding a Partner representative as a voting member of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council. Also, Schwartz attends annual meetings, giving him an opportunity to get information and input from the Partners in person.
The most recent meeting took place on November 28 in Washington, D.C., at the American Public Health Association headquarters. Having Schwartz at the meeting helped the Partners feel an even more integral part of the process. As one participant remarked afterwards, "How often do you get to sit ten feet from director of an NIH institute and question him and get his candid thoughts?"
According to OSP Special Assistant John Schelp, another important development is the introduction of regular e-mail distribution to Partners. "We send thorough presentation information prior to conference call meetings." he said. E-mailings also include information about new research and programs.
Coordinating the Partners is just one of the important responsibilities of OSP. Martin's workgroup provides broad support to the director and other senior NIEHS staff in defining and interpreting the programs and research of the Institute to the Congress, the public, and the scientific and public health communities. OSP further serves as a liaison between Congressional staff, other government agencies and health and science organizations, and various stake holder groups to ensure that NIEHS is accessible and responsive.