Environmental Factor, August 2008, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Looking to the Future of Environmental Public Health
By Eddy Ball
The NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH) working group held its first brainstorming workshop June 30 - July 1 in Rodbell Auditorium. Organized by the program staff in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT), the workshop brought together leaders representing diverse groups with a keen interest in environmental public health (EPH) from across the United States in an effort to chart a course for the Institute's continued involvement in EPH over the decade to come.
The PEPH initiative arose from a congressional hearing held in September 2007, when NIEHS Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D., testified about the Institute's commitment to supporting environmental public health programs and community-based participatory research (CBPR). This testimony lead to NIEHS embarking on a series of activities designed to create this new PEPH program. In November 2007, the PEPH working group released a Request for Information (RFI). The RFI elicited some 120 responses about the Institute's role in environmental public health from environmental health researchers, healthcare professionals, educators, policy makers and other members of the public with a vested interest in the effects of environmental exposures on health.
In his welcoming remarks, Wilson reinforced the message he delivered to Congress. "This meeting really is an instrumental opportunity for NIEHS and for the field of environmental health sciences," he said, "to help the Institute frame its approach for moving forward over the next five to ten years. This area represents the research leading edge in real world health implications of environmental exposures - [as well as offering] a way to sharpen our focus on community-based environmental health challenges."
Wilson spoke of the need to determine the "special niche" for NIEHS in the area of environmental public health and "to figure out how we will frame the research program as we go forward."
DERT Susceptibility and Population Health Branch Chief Gwen Collman, Ph.D., filled in the details of the workshop's goals. Collman described the Institute's need for input from stakeholders about how to create something "unified, integrated and synergistic" to help meet future EPH challenges. She emphasized that the ideas DERT staff had already put forth were "straw men," intended to spark open discussion and a free exchange of ideas. "Everything is a work in progress here," she maintained. "We have no a priori ideas about what the workshop product is going to look like."
The workshop was organized around three topics that were designed to start participants thinking broadly and end with more focused recommendations. Each session started with a panel discussion, followed by breakout groups (see text box) and reports back to the full assembly.
As the meeting came to a close on July 1, Collman took a few minutes to reflect on the workshop process and to outline the task ahead for the PEPH working group. According to her, over the next several weeks the group will consider the responses to the RFI, now posted online, along with workshop recommendations to prepare the 10-year plan for the new Partnerships for Environmental Public Health program.
Collman said that she found the workshop process to be very productive. As she hoped, she felt that by the end of the workshop the PEPH team was much closer to the goal of developing a comprehensive ten-year plan. She also thanked the PEPH team for their hard work on this initiative and the workshop planners for developing a strong participatory framework to facilitate exchange of ideas and insights among workshop participants.
In her final remarks, Collman talked about her first fifteen years working in environmental public health and searching for the most effective role for NIEHS. She noted that there have been times when the institute's role and commitment to this area has come into question and said, "In ten years I don't want it to be a question any more."
Brainstorming in Breakout Groups
Throughout the workshop, participants engaged one another, using flip charts to record their ideas on the topic areas:
- Session 1: Partnerships, Tools, Strategies and Resources for Environmental Public Health, moderated by NIEHS Health Science Administrator Christie Drew, Ph.D., of the DERT Program Analysis Branch. This session focused on issues and unmet needs in the areas of building capacity, evaluation, communication and research in the broad field of EPH.
- Session 2: The Unique Role of NIEHS, moderated by Stephani Hines of the University of New Mexico. Participants considered specific ways the Institute can address identified issues and needs noted in Session 1.
- Session 3: Balancing Diversity Needs in Environmental Public Health, moderated by Professor Emeritus Bernie Goldstein, M.D. Participants offered strategies to NIEHS for balancing and prioritizing critical areas and needs.