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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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Belmont Forum Advances International Collaboration on Climate and Health Research

Tara Failey

NIEHS played a pivotal role in the approval of an innovative, international Collaborative Research Action (CRA) on climate, environment, and health at the Belmont Forum Plenary Meeting held Oct. 16 – 18 in London. The Belmont Forum is an international partnership that enables research to understand, mitigate, and adapt to global environmental change. The meeting brought together representatives from 28 funding agencies from six continents to discuss opportunities to maximize resources and meet interdisciplinary goals, including how to link research on climate, environment, and health.

Belmont Forum

Established in 2009, the Belmont Forum is a partnership of funding organizations, international science councils, and regional consortia committed to the advancement of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary science.
(Photo courtesy of Belmont Forum)

The Climate, Environment, and Health CRA, which is planned to launch in early 2019, represents the completion of a rigorous scoping process that lasted longer than a year. John Balbus, M.D., M.P.H., NIEHS senior advisor for public health, attended the meeting and led activities to develop a strategic roadmap for the CRA.

“The need for this CRA was focused as international stakeholders came together, asking how we could work together to really protect health and enhance the capacity and resiliency of health systems, especially in developing countries.” said Balbus.

To date, the Belmont Forum has funded more than 10 CRAs, which are the forum’s equivalent of an international call for proposals, and has supported over 1,000 scientists and stakeholders in dozens of countries. Themes addressed by CRAs have focused on global environmental change topics that blend natural science, social science, and societal issues, such as freshwater security, food security, biodiversity and ecosystem services, coastal vulnerability, and sustainable development.

“Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of international coordination around climate and health research, so the fact that the Belmont is taking this up is really significant,” said Apurva Dave, Ph.D., an international coordinator for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), who supported U.S. agency representatives at the plenary meeting.

Climate and Health Report Spurs Research Efforts

Prior to the approval of the CRA, a number of scientific reviews were undertaken to better understand the health risks presented by climate change. In 2016, USGCRP released its Climate and Health Assessment, which was compiled by the organization’s climate change and human health group (CCHHG). This in-depth report examines how changes in climate will impact mental health, water-related illnesses, food safety, and air quality, among other effects.

“This report helped galvanize the international community by providing a comprehensive, evidence-based assessment of the risks to human health posed by climate change, spurring discussion of the outstanding science questions and research needs,” said Dave. “So much so that the European Union (EU) utilized it to develop a strategic research agenda for climate, environment, and health.” According to Dave, the EU’s European Commission is focused on creating research frameworks to find answers to major societal challenges, such as climate and health connections. To pursue these goals, the Commission approached USGCRP to sponsor a CRA through the Belmont Forum to address these connections.

Answering the call, the CCHHG, which is co-chaired by NIEHS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), helped lead the planning process for the climate and health CRA. This included convening delegates from around the world for a scoping workshop in Washington, D.C., in April 2018 to continue thematic research prioritization, adopt a collective vision, and develop a strategic roadmap for the CRA. “Throughout the scoping process, NIEHS’ role has been really vital,” said Dave. “The institute has provided both leadership for the CCHHG, as well as an impetus for other agencies to get involved.”

Advancing Transdisciplinary Research on Climate

During the CRA scoping process, a variety of potential thematic areas were identified, ranging from climate-sensitive infectious diseases to preparedness and response relating to disasters and extreme weather. To address known research gaps, overarching goals of the CRA include funding research to:

  • Improve modelling, predictability, and early warning of climate and environmental events.
  • Fill knowledge gaps on the pathways from climate exposure to potential diseases.
  • Understand health risk, vulnerability, and resilience.
  • Deliver usable data and information to achieve innovative solutions to reduce the health impacts of climate and environmental changes.

Every research proposal funded through a Belmont Forum CRA theme must consist of a project co-designed by at least one natural scientist, social scientist, and stakeholder. “Through this transdisciplinary approach, the CRA will help build connections between researchers and stakeholders from the climate, environment, and health sectors, who have historically worked in separate spheres,” said Dave.

Research teams must also include representatives from at least three different countries. Through international collaboration, the forum aims to align conceptual frameworks, understand methodological differences, and determine the best models, which may vary according to country.

Aligning International Resources

“The Belmont Forum aligns research priorities, coordinating current and emerging funding activities, so that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” said Juli Trtanj, climate and health lead for NOAA.

While the CRA presents many opportunities to find synergies internationally, the funding opportunity will also provide many benefits for U.S. agencies. “For U.S. agencies, our involvement in these efforts presents an opportunity to align our work more closely and strategically with each other, so that we can put a united, strong front foot forward in the Belmont Forum,” said Trtanj. “We’re generating momentum for other U.S. agencies to participate in other CRAs down the road, creating a precedent.”

“The Belmont Forum, and the institutes involved in the collaborative funding, should be lauded for their leadership and vision to take a step out on this,” said Trtanj. “Kudos to the Belmont Forum for taking this on and creating a space for us to advance climate and health research.”

panel discussing climate change
During the 2018 Belmont Forum Plenary, attendees discussed the planned scope for the CRA on climate, environment, and health.
(Photo courtesy of Apurva Dave)