Environmental Factor

September 2011

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Panel discusses multiple benefits of federally funded research

By Eddy Ball
September 2011

Rose Hoban

Hoban introduced the program, and, after each panelist delivered a brief presentation, she coordinated the question and answer session. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Audience listening to Director Birnbaum opening remarks

As Birnbaum made opening remarks, her fellow scientists on the panel waited their turns to speak. Shown, left to right, are Hollingsworth, Rodes, Swenberg, and Patisaul. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. and U.S. Rep. David Price

Although the business at hand was serious, there were lighter moments as well, such as the one Birnbaum, left, and Price so obviously enjoyed, above. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Moderated by journalist Rose Hoban, a panel of area scientists joined U.S. Rep. David Price and NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., Aug. 28 for a discussion of federally funded science, outlining its scientific, social, and economic benefits. The event, which was also webcast, gave the panelists an opportunity to communicate why their scientific research is a valuable impetus for improving quality of life for people locally, nationally, and worldwide - as well as to explain their work to a wider community.

Hoban who is the founder of N.C. Health News(http://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/) Exit NIEHS and a former health care reporter for North Carolina Public Radio, set the tone for the discussion with her welcome to the audience. “I think the people who started RTP [Research Triangle Park] would be pleased to see how it has developed, spurred on by federal funding,” she said, pointing to the impact of job creation and new ideas in changing the face of North Carolina positively, as well as the effect of federally funded scientific research on people throughout the U.S. and even in developing countries.

Birnbaum echoed those themes in her opening remarks. “NIEHS is a really important part of the N.C. economy,” she noted. “There are 1400 people who work at NIEHS, and we're responsible statewide for a half-billion dollars of economic impact each year.” The work of researchers supported by NIEHS funding stimulates the economy, she added, as an important co-benefit of the Institute's mission of improving public health and quality of life.

Impact on research and economy

Joining Birnbaum and Price on the panel were NIEHS grantees John Hollingsworth, M.D.(http://pulmonary.medicine.duke.edu/faculty/details/0265267) Exit NIEHS, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University; Heather Patisaul, Ph.D.(http://www4.ncsu.edu/~hbpatisa/) Exit NIEHS, an assistant professor of biology at North Carolina State University (NCSU); Charles Rodes, Ph.D.(http://www.rti.org/experts.cfm?objectid=FBD9CFBD-A01D-14EF-8B3C1D1334670222) Exit NIEHS, a senior fellow at RTI International; and James Swenberg, D.V.M., Ph.D.(http://www.sph.unc.edu/?option=com_profiles&Itemid=1891&profileAction=ProfDetail&pid=704283985) Exit NIEHS, a Kenan Distinguished Professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

The panelists took turns talking about the work they do to improve health and the collateral benefits of their research in terms of employment, training, technological development, and economic stimulus. Each pointed to direct economic benefits from improved health, the thousands of jobs supported by research, the hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact, the hundreds of new researchers trained, and new technologies, which improve health and quality of life, while also stimulating income for small businesses.

Swenberg offered an impressive statistic about how federal funding can have a domino effect in terms of indirect economic impact. He described the way an investment of $1.5 million in a UNC pilot project funded by NIEHS resulted in 30 times that amount of economic activity through investments from other funding sources.

An important story to tell

As the final speaker, Price congratulated the panel and urged the audience to carry the effort forward.

“We are in the midst of a national debate about our funding priorities,” Price continued, emphasizing that the multiple benefits of federally funded research is an important story to tell again and again, to as many people as possible. “The core research enterprise in this country is central to the country's competitive position on the world stage,” he added, and scientists need to make sure that message is heard.

Looking ahead

During the question and answer segment of the program, panelists considered ways to spread the message to educate the public. Price said, “We need to leave no doubt that we're good stewards of public dollars.” Birnbaum added, “We need to be out there communicating with the public and promoting science literacy.”

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