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Council Looks to Integrating Stimulus Funding with NIEHS Mission

By Eddy Ball
March 2009

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Birnbaum pondered the latest news on the stimulus funding. "At this point, it is such a fast moving target that what we heard a week ago from Building One [at NIH] is not what we're hearing today," she said. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Gwen Collman, Ph.D.
As Acting Director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT), Gwen Collman, Ph.D., was a frequent contributor to the discussion of stimulus funding. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

George Leikof, Ph.D.
Member George Leikof, Ph.D., was one of several concerned by how quickly new grants will need to be bid and processed. "I think it should be done by September of this year to have any impact at all," he noted. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ken Ramos, Ph.D.
Member Ken Ramos, Ph.D., center, seemed to express Council sentiment as he observed, "The May meeting will be a challenging meeting in terms of the logistics for the number of decisions that are going to have to be made." Sitting beside him was Kevin Stephens, M.D., J.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Liebler, Wani and Stephani Hines
"This is an opportunity to help young investigators," commented Dan Liebler, Ph.D., center, seated with Altaf Wani, Ph.D., and member Stephani Hines, right. "I would urge, in the strongest terms, that that be made a high priority." Birnbaum said it was one of the priorities she has in mind. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A receptive NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council (NAEHSC) ( welcomed new NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., at its spring meeting on February 19 - where she shared her vision for the Institute and outlined what she sees as the highest priorities before turning to budgetary issues. During the discussion following Birnbaum's report, members explored with her the challenges of spending the NIEHS share of the $10.4 billion NIH from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The economic stimulus funding is intended to support the integrated mission of the Institute to improve human health, while at the same time saving existing jobs and creating new ones.

NAEHSC was the first council to meet after President Obama signed the measure into law two days earlier, and the lively discussion centered on many of the same issues that will likely confront other NIH councils in the weeks and months ahead. Members of the NAEHSC expressed interest in sharing ideas with the NIEHS leadership on the best ways to allocate approximately $169 million in two-year stimulus funding.

Putting the money to work quickly in a way that both stimulates job creation and does not create a long-term commitment of basic funding is one aspect of what Birnbaum referred to as she encouraged council members to help her discover "how NIEHS can be bigger than the sum of its parts."

As Birnbaum explained, during her first four weeks at NIEHS, she has aggressively searched for ways to bring together the human resources of the Institute and its partners by boosting employee morale, filling key leadership positions, and building or re-building relationships with other agencies, NIH institutes and centers, and the extramural community.

Speaking of the challenges she sees for environmental health scientists, Birnbaum said, "We need both the best individual- and the best team-science to address the complex diseases and the complex environmental impacts that we're dealing with..., [and] we need to get a better handle on how we integrate all this information in order to prevent disease in our population."

Birnbaum told members that she welcomes advice from council on additional ways to promote synergy, maximize resources and expand translation of research results. She offered a broad definition of translation that combines "bench to public health" and better understanding of how animal research impacts human disease with the traditional "bench to bedside" theme.

Birnbaum's message underscored the synergy she intends to facilitate by promoting non-traditional collaborations. "It's not enough to look at a single type of cell or a single type of organ system," she argued. "We're going to have to look at the whole individual, and this is going to require a lot of cross-disciplinary activity."

Keeping the director's priorities in mind, along with their own concerns and perceived needs, Council members took the initial steps in recommending priorities for Recovery Act funding. Birnbaum admonished the members to bear in mind that there is "no expectation of more than two years of supplemental funding."

As Birnbaum noted during the discussion, "We're getting updates [on the Recovery Act] as we speak." She added, "Everything is going to be very quick. You can expect to see requests for solicitations and information about the areas of interest that we have out on the street by the end of the month."

Phan, McCabe and Lemasters
Three of the new members follow the director's report on their electronic Council Books. Shown left to right are Phan, McCabe and Lemasters with DERT staff seated behind them. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

New Faces and More Openness at Council Meeting

The February 19 meeting included five new members to fill the seats of retiring members on the Council and enhanced access to deliberations for people unable to attend the public sessions in person.

The meetings, except for closed sessions to consider grant proposals, have always been open to members of the public - as long as they could physically attend. At this meeting, for the first time a streaming video gave anyone with an internet connection access to the public portion of the meeting. Except for confidential information about grants, the Council Book, a compilation of reports by NIEHS leaders, was made available online prior to the meeting. Videos of proceedings and presentations at the meeting will be posted on the NIEHS website as an effort to better meet the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Sunshine Act.

New Council members in attendance included the following:

  • University of Cincinnati Professor of Epidemiology Grace LeMasters, Ph.D. ( Exit NIEHS, who is director of an NIEHS training grant on Molecular Epidemiology in Children's Environmental Health
  • Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) Professor of Molecular and Medical Genetics Stephen Lloyd, Ph.D. ( Exit NIEHS, a senior scientist in the OHSU Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology
  • University of Michigan Professor of Molecular and Cellular Pathology Sem Phan, M.D., Ph.D. ( Exit NIEHS
  • Dean of the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California San Diego Palmer Taylor, Ph.D. ( Exit NIEHS
  • Executive Director of the non-profit advocacy organization Improving Kids' Environment Janet McCabe ( Exit NIEHS

Birnbaum also recognized the contributions of three retiring members not present at the meeting - Kate Dixon, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona, Bruce Freeman, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh and Lisa Greenhill of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

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