Directors report to council
By Ernie Hood
With all of its business conducted in one day instead of the usual two, the Sept. 11 National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council meeting was even busier than usual. The event featured updates from NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT) Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., as well as a Concept Clearance for a new Superfund Research Program (SRP) training initiative (see related article) and two scientific presentations on advanced biomedical research model systems (see related article).
In its closed afternoon session, Council also for the first time considered grant applications falling under the new NIH guidelines for Special Council Review. With some exceptions, all competing Research Project Grants with direct costs exceeding $1 million — a change from the earlier NIH threshold of $1.5 million in total costs — will be subject to the Special Council Review process.
Putting the plan into action
Both Birnbaum and Collman addressed the status of implementation of the new NIEHS 2013-2017 Strategic Plan, which was released August 1 after an 18-month development process.
“We’re currently working very hard on the implementation plans, which constitute exactly what we are going to do and how we are going to spend our money to do it over the next five years,” said Birnbaum. “The divisions have all developed individual implementation plans, which are now being merged into an institute-wide implementation plan, including cross-divisional efforts.… We now have a number of implementation teams forming across the Institute to look at some of the major issues that we will spend a lot of effort on in the next couple of years in the intramural program, the extramural program, and the Division of the National Toxicology Program as well.”
Collman noted that DERT has been quite busy with Strategic Plan-related activities. “Much of our time, attention, and energy over the last months was taken up by a set of very interesting and exhilarating discussions about the Strategic Plan,” she told Council. “In DERT, we’ve created Strategic Goal implementation teams, and they’ve been quite active brainstorming ideas on the goal areas and coming up with a series of activities for the next five years. We’re now in the process of prioritizing, and soon will be matching those great ideas to budget realities.”
Birnbaum said that the implementation plans currently being developed should be in place by the next Council meeting in February 2013.
Budget uncertainty continues
Along with her usual updates on NIEHS activities and scientific advances, Birnbaum described the current and near future budget situation for the Institute, the NIH, and the Federal government. “We all know that Congress is not going to pass a budget until at least after the election, and many people think that a budget may take much longer than that to actually happen,” she told Council members. The expectation, she said, is that there will be a new six-month Continuing Resolution (CR) in place by late September. She added that the budget-related planning going on at the NIH level is concerned with how the agency will go forward for the next six months under a new CR.
She also described the potential effects of sequestration, which would occur on January 3, 2013 if a budget agreement has not been made—the so-called going off the fiscal cliff scenario by activating automatic, deep cuts in federal spending. The Department of Health and Human Services would be cut by approximately 8.2 percent, as would NIH and each of the its institutes and centers, including NIEHS. Birnbaum remains hopeful that cooler heads will prevail in Washington. “I think everyone is hoping very hard that once the election is over, people will get to work and make the appropriate decisions so that the automatic sequestration will not kick in, because it would be devastating to many, many programs in our country,” she said.
(Ernie Hood is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)