Environmental Factor, February 2010, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Local Stakeholders Offer Input on SRP
By Thaddeus Schug
At the Superfund Research Program (SRP) planning session Jan. 5, NIEHS staff heard from a distinctly local and vocal group of stakeholders - Research Triangle area grantees and a contingent of NIEHS colleagues involved in grant administration, basic research in toxicology, and policy analysis. The meeting was the fourth in a series of planning meetings that began in November 2009 (see related story(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsletter/2010/january/spotlight-superfund.cfm)).
These meetings have been organized to gather feedback on a series of questions SRP plans to address as it develops a long-term strategic plan(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/strategicplan/) to direct program focus and effectiveness. Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., acting branch chief of the NIEHS Cellular, Organ and Systems Pathology Branch, was quick to initiate discussion, voicing concerns about whether the SRP should include areas of research that are traditional to NIEHS or limit its focus to "programs unique to SRP, such as remediation of waste and improving technology for cleaning up waste sites."
In response, SRP Director William (Bill) Suk, Ph.D.(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/dert/hsrb/), pointed out that to a great extent "SRP operates according to a congressional mandate, and that program balance is dictated by its authorizing legislation." SRP Program Administrator Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., added, "SRP is not attempting to balance specific program topics, but rather a broad range of outcomes so that community groups have what they need to make informed decisions and improve communication through community outreach programs in areas directly impacted by Superfund sites."
SRP plans encourage interdisciplinary science
The audience remained engaged as moderator Larry Reed, from contractor MDB, Inc., shifted discussion to the interdisciplinary approach supported by SRP. Richard Di Giulio, Ph.D.(http://superfund.geneimprint.com/person?type=faculty&id=0) , Duke University SRP Center director, noted, "The most significant issues in environmental health research involve areas such as environmental chemistry and biology, biomedical sciences, engineering, and the social sciences. SRP should place priority on these very significant issues, which will force interdisciplinary interactions among scientists," he suggested.
Diversified training opportunities offered to graduate students
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Toxicologist and former SRP trainee, Beth Owens, Ph.D., endorsed SRP's interdisciplinary training concept, observing that she frequently uses the cross-disciplinary communication skills she learned at the University of Kentucky program. "Graduate students are generally trained to be knowledgeable in an increasingly narrow field," Owens said. "SRP can and should provide a mechanism by which students can broaden their knowledge base on environmental and Superfund issues, and work as an interdisciplinary team." Suk added that funding interdisciplinary training programs has been an on-going challenge for SRP, due to traditional barriers in academic institutions.
In response, UNC professor and SRP program director James Swenberg, D.V.M., Ph.D.(http://www.sph.unc.edu/?option=com_profiles&Itemid=1891&profileAction=ProfDetail&pid=704283985) , commented, "Universities are making gains in interdisciplinary training, particularly in the areas of public health, translational biology, and nanotechnology." Di Giulio added, "SRP has done a good job promoting program diversification, as evidenced by research extensions into emerging chemicals and nanotechnology, as well as recalcitrant problems such as complex mixtures and differential human vulnerabilities."
Cross agency communications encouraged
Pitching the need for an Institute-wide effort to enhance interagency interactions, NTP Deputy Program Director for Science Nigel Walker, Ph.D., advised SRP to improve communication to avoid overlap among stakeholders. Walker stated, "At the end of the day, we are all trying to use the public's money to figure out common problems. And, if we can share resources between federal agencies and other institutions, we will be better at solving these issues."
(Thaddeus Schug, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Signal Transduction.)
NIEHS on the Hill
According to staff attending the Jan. 14 SRP Planning Meeting at the Hubert H. Humphrey Building in Washington, NIEHS Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D., was instrumental in helping to ensure a good turnout of Capitol-area stakeholders, despite an unexpected change in venue.
Among the organizations represented by the 28 participants were the Society of Toxicology, Clean Air Cool Planet, Parkinson's Action Network, Society for Women's Health Research, American Public Health Association, National Association of County and City Health Officials, and Natural Resources Defense Council. Staff were also on hand from the office of U.S. Senator Orin Hatch, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of Labor.
"John reached out to the groups he's worked with over the years in ways the rest of us just couldn't," said NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who also attended the meeting "It's clear that having leadership representatives in Bethesda is helping us to have a higher profile in Washington and more influence on what happens there in regard to the Institute's environmental health science and public health initiatives."
SRP will post feedback gathered from a series of face-to-face meetings, Web seminars, and online questionnaire on its Web site. This information, along with recommendations made by the 2009 SRP External Advisory Panel, will be used to draft a long-term strategic plan, which SRP plans to release later this summer.2010 SRP Strategic Planning Timeline
- Collect input through January 29
- Consolidate information from meetings, questionnaire, and webinars during February
- Draft mission statement and strategic plan in February and March
- Refine mission statement and strategic plan during March and April
- Present plan to the National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council at its May 12 - 13 meeting and incorporate modifications
- Publish and disseminate strategic plan for comment in June