Environmental Factor, June 2009, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Supplemental Funding and New Developments Dominate Council
By Eddy Ball
The NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council (NAEHSC) gathered for its two-day spring meeting at NIEHS May 21-22. The group heard reports by leadership, shared their thoughts about future plans and initiatives, and grappled with what NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., described as the "moving target" of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funding.
Birnbaum welcomed the Council's newest member, Johns Hopkins University oncologist Stephen Baylin, M.D., and introduced newly appointed NIEHS Acting Scientific Director John Pritchard, Ph.D., and NIEHS Acting Deputy Director Steve Kleeberger, Ph.D. (See related story).
NAEHSC Executive Secretary and Acting Director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) Gwen Collman, Ph.D., told members that along with continuing the practice of videocasting the event and making documents available online NIEHS had advertised web access to members of the NIEHS extramural community - an extra effort to make proceedings as accessible as possible.
Birnbaum reviewed leadership and scientific developments since the Council's last meeting in February. She also highlighted NIEHS efforts toward "enhancing interactions with EPA" that are part of an initiative to strengthen existing partnerships and build new ones with sister institutes and centers and other government organizations with goals related to the NIEHS mission.
Turning to funding matters, Birnbaum told Council of her successful efforts to secure an additional $20 million in NIH ARRA stimulus funding for the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) and Worker Education Training Program (WETP). The additional allocation raised the total stimulus package for NIEHS to $187 million.
As she reviewed the Institute's budget for FY 2008 and 2009 and the President's request for 2010, Birnbaum said the figures show an increase of approximately 3.2 percent. If Congress accepts the recommendations for 2010, the total NIEHS budget will increase to $684 million in FY 2010, and the budget for SRP will grow at a smaller pace to $79 million.
Pritchard opened his report with news that sparked enthusiastic remarks from several members with ties to the academic community, where hiring has been sluggish at best -the Division of Intramural Research (DIR) program's search for six new principal investigators and the recent addition of Biostatistics Branch Tenure Track Investigator Raja Jothi, Ph.D. The news prompted Council member John Essigman, Ph.D., to comment that he was "heartened by the expansion of scientific expertise" in DIR.
Pritchard was followed by Acting Clinical Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D. who discussed plans for the NIEHS Clinical Research Center, which opens officially on July 27. These plans include pursuing accreditation from The Joint Commission (http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/) (formerly JCAHO) during its second year of operation and creative partnerships with the NIH Clinical Center designed to maximize NIEHS funding for NIH clinical research efforts.
NTP Associate Director John Bucher, Ph.D., then reviewed the impact of his group's review of studies on bisphenol A and plans for expanded collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration. In the Report of the Executive Officer, NIEHS Associate Director for Management Marc Hollander showed Council members his group's draft Master Plan for infrastructure development at the NIEHS campus and described possible uses of two tracts for NIH facilities and a new data center.
The final leadership report by Collman offered members a behind-the-scenes look at how DERT administrators are tackling the ambiguities of stimulus funding priorities and the hundreds of applications that have already been received. As Collman explained, DERT has tried to anticipate application trends, developed internal controls to monitor conflict of interest and considered strategies for satisfying reporting requirements, including the number of jobs created, scientific impact and spending.
Collman explained that NIEHS is building a computer system, known as the NIEHS ARRA Supplements Operations System (SOS), to handle the flood of applications and proliferating number of decision-making documents. She also observed that the existing Electronic Council Concurrence protocol would need to be expanded to expedite approval of stimulus funding applications this summer.
Council Hears Concept Clearance Presentations
Looking to the future of NIEHS research, DERT staff offered proposals for new directions in their programs:
- Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers (BCERC) - To continue support and to expand upon the BCERC, which is the only NIH project supporting trans-disciplinary research on the interaction of chemical, physical, biological, and social environmental factors with genetic factors using puberty as a window of susceptibility.
- Key Message Development and Dissemination Research Contract - To increase awareness of the role of the environment in breast cancer risk and the opportunities that life-style choices may make in modifying that risk through dissemination of expert-identified audience-sensitive key messages to breast cancer organizations and other targeted audiences.
- Engineered Tissue Systems for the Environmental Health Sciences - To foster the development of in vitro experimental and computational models replicating major organ systems to be used for increased throughput and high data content screening of the mechanistic and toxicological effects of potential environmental toxicants.
- Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Contract Studies - To allocate the legislatively mandated 2.5 percent of the NIEHS research and development budget to support small businesses via the SBIR program to develop tools to further research on eight topics identified as important for high-throughput screening development, toxicology research in the NIEHS WormTox program, sperm analysis and exposure to mold.