Environmental Factor, March 2008, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Wilson Updates Council on NIEHS Developments and Challenges
By Eddy Ball
As he began his report at the 123rd regular meeting of the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council February 19 in Rodbell Auditorium, NIEHS Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D., greeted members with his characteristic low key humor. "These past several months here at the Institute have been very eventful and very involved," Wilson said in reference to the series of news-making events and major new initiatives underway since the group's last meeting in September.
Wilson also introduced a motif that would inform his report and surface several times during the day's discussions. "The general theme of our work here at NIEHS is research excellence in pursuit of disease prevention and better health," he began. "Our Institute [addresses] real world, human health problems related to environmental exposures and environmental triggers in human disease."
Wilson's report touched on leadership changes and several new developments and meeting highlights. He introduced the new editor-in-chief of Environmental Health Perspectives, Hugh Tilson, Ph.D., who spoke about his first two months on the job.
Wilson then related the Institute's activities with the trans-NIH Gene-Environment Interaction and Epigenomics initiatives, the Superfund Basic Research Program anniversary symposium, alternate toxicity testing employing "robo-tox" high-throughput screening methods(see related Spotlight stories) and the Institute of Medicine's transportation and health workshop.
However, Wilson devoted most of his report to the topics of congressional appropriations to NIEHS and proposed modifications to the peer review process for grantees in the environmental health sciences.
Although appropriations increased slightly for fiscal year 2008, Wilson explained, the overall NIH budget remains flat. The President's Budget for 2008 continues funding at the 2008 level, signaling an effective decrease in funding due to inflation. Moreover, two separately funded programs operated by NIEHS, the Superfund Basic Research Program and the Worker Education Training Program, actually experienced reductions.
According to Wilson, when the budget is adjusted for inflation, using what is called the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index, a picture emerges of a significant and continuing decline in NIH resources. "Compared with the appropriation in 2003," he observed, "the spending power that we have across the NIH is down by more than ten percent."
Until this year, Wilson said, NIEHS "has been able to accommodate for the decrease in spending power by discontinuing a number of capacity-building programs... [making it] possible for us to continue pretty much with business as usual." This year, however, "the budget is extremely tight and certainly much tighter than it's been any time in my experience here at the Institute."
Wilson then turned to the topic of peer review by the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) and described an innovative pilot effort by the CSR that could help assure that toxicology and environmental health research applications will get reviewed by researchers who are more familiar with these areas. For June 2008 submissions, grant proposals that had been assigned to diverse disease or organ-based study sections can go to a pilot Special Emphasis Panel (SEP), called Systemic Injury by Environmental Exposure, resulting in what Wilson called an enhanced "clustering of our proposals."