What is new about the 2006 strategic plan?
New Frontiers in Environmental Sciences and Human Health provides a new framework for the NIEHS to conduct research. The new strategy emphasizes research focused on complex human disease, and calls for interdisciplinary teams of scientists to investigate a broad spectrum of disease factors, including environmental agents, genetics, age, diet, and activity levels. Recent advances in technology make this emphasis on human health and new integrative approach possible. Traditionally, NIEHS has supported individual scientists whose work focused on either basic biological responses to environmental agents or environmental problems in public health. NIEHS will continue to support this research as well.
What prompted a new Strategic Plan?
A number of factors prompted the development of a new strategic plan. Most importantly, major scientific advances, new technologies, and new testing methods have emerged since the last strategic planning process occurred, making it imperative that we take advantage of new opportunities and develop a plan that would set the course for the future. We were also very interested in receiving input from members of the public, including all scientists, to help direct the future of research on how the environment influences human health. Another reason for the development of the plan is that tighter budgets make it imperative that a conscious effort be made to get the most public health benefit out of each dollar in the NIEHS budget. A strategic plan is among the best ways to do that. Finally, the arrival of the new NIEHS/NTP Director, David Schwartz, meant that his vision needed to be joined to the mission and direction of the Institute in a coherent way with the input from the scientific and public health communities and the public.
Are there new research opportunities related to the strategic plan?
Yes, the plan sets the stage for new research opportunities. For example, a new program called DISCOVER (Disease Investigation for Specialized Clinically-Oriented Ventures in Environmental Research)(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/centers/discover/index.cfm) will support teams of researchers focused on integrating environmental health research with patient-oriented and population-based studies. A program for intramural scientists, called the Director's Challenge, will also foster these multi-disciplinary collaborations among NIEHS intramural scientists who are working in different areas of research.
The establishment of the Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-ES-06-007.html) program is another example of a new research opportunity that will help to bring talented new scientists to the field. In September 2006, the NIEHS awarded five-year ONES grants to eight young investigators, and hopes to fund at least six new recipients each year.
The NIEHS has also established an Office of Translational Research(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/od/otr/index.cfm) to oversee many new initiatives that will better integrate basic, clinical, and public health science to have the biggest impact on human health.
I've heard about the Genes and Environment Initiative, and I see it's mentioned in the strategic plan. What is the NIEHS role in this initiative and how will the initiative improve human health?
The Genes and Environment Initiative (GEI), supported by Secretary of Health and Human Services, will provide the NIH with the unprecedented opportunity to identify the genetic and environmental underpinnings of common illnesses. The GEI is co-chaired by David A. Schwartz, director of NIEHS, and Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.
The NIEHS will take the lead in developing high-tech tools to measure environmental exposure and the biological responses to these exposures. These new tools could include small, wearable sensors. Researchers need tools to measure individual exposure to environmental agents, a precise measure of individual biological response in order to better understand the relationship between environmental exposures and human health. Without these more precise measures of exposure, it will be very difficult to figure out why certain people develop disease and others do not. We also need to find out why a disease has such a different prognosis from one person to the next.
I'm interested in the field of environmental health research. Does the strategic plan address training and career development?
Training and career development in environmental health sciences is clearly one of our most profound responsibilities and a top priority for NIEHS.
NIEHS offers a number of programs to interest young students and undergraduates in the environmental health sciences, including summer internship programs, undergraduate work-study programs, partnerships with professional and educational societies, and outreach through publications--to create an open door to welcome the best and brightest young minds to our field.
The strategic plan emphasizes the need for training in more than one discipline and participating in interdisciplinary team research early in your graduate school career.
Consistent with the strategic plan, NIEHS has established the Outstanding New Environmental Scientist (ONES) program to enhance the careers of talented younger researchers by funding them in the formative stages of their careers.
The strategic plan emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary teams of researchers working together. Why is this important and why will it be effective?
Given the breadth of environmental health sciences, interdisciplinary research is an absolute necessity. This range of diversity creates an enormous opportunity to bring together teams of scientists with different backgrounds, skills, and ideas to more effectively tackle today's critical problems in environmental health. An interdisciplinary approach will undoubtedly lead to more profound achievements in biomedical research, which will then translate into more substantial advances in human health. Young scientists in particular need to be trained in interdisciplinary research so that they can more effectively work with other scientists to ask and answer the toughest questions in environmental health sciences.
Which disciplines will be involved in the interdisciplinary teams?
There is no single set of disciplines that would typify a research team. The creativity required of cutting-edge scientific research will reach out across the spectrum of disciplines, from biological and medical sciences, to genetics, epidemiology, biostatistics, biometrics, computer sciences, bioengineering, biotechnology, and biophysics.
The plan references partnerships between the NIEHS and community organizations for the purpose of improving human health. How can community groups concerned about exposure to environmental agents work with NIEHS to address these concerns?
Strong partnerships between researchers and community members will remain critical to the success of the NIEHS in fulfilling our mission of understanding disease and improving human health.
The NIEHS has created direct channels of communication by holding regular Town Meetings throughout the United States, and by developing the Public Interest Partners(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/about/community/publicinterest.cfm), representatives of community, disease advocacy, and environmental organizations, who meet regularly with the NIEHS leadership. Recognizing the importance of community input, we have also invited a partner representative to regularly attend the NIEHS advisory council meetings.
What does "community-linked research" mean in Goal IV? Why is it important?
Community-linked research investigates environmentally-related health effects in specific locales, often minority or socioeconomically disadvantaged communities that bear an undue burden of environmental exposures. This research focuses on populations that are exposed to high concentrations of environmental agents thought to pose a risk and on diseases that are unevenly distributed in minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. The NIEHS took the lead in establishing an Interagency Working Group on Community-Based Participatory Research involving a number of NIH institutes, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation. It is important to address health disparities not only because they pose an innate unfairness and raise questions of environmental justice, but also because they cost everyone in dollars and human talent and resources lost.
NIEHS and NTP have performed the gold standard of classic toxicology studies since their inceptions in 1966 and 1978 respectively. What is the status of toxicology and specifically animal studies under this strategic plan?
The NIEHS Strategic Plan builds on the foundation of toxicology that is in place. The classic two-year animal studies have evolved tremendously over the decades, and the strategic plan moves the thinking along to ensure that animal studies remain relevant to human health concerns in the context of current science, so better use will be made of better toxicology studies.
The strategic plan proposes a much greater role for clinicians at a time when budgets are tighter and medical expertise and medical treatment and care are increasing in cost more rapidly than almost any other sector of the economy. Can NIEHS afford to implement its strategic plan?
NIEHS research aims at reducing the growing cost of chronic diseases related to environmental exposures. It is more cost-effective to prevent diseases than to treat them, so identifying environmental risk factors that contribute to the disease process before onset of the disease is critical. The strategic plan itself is a way of setting careful priorities to make sure every dollar counts.
NIEHS has always had many more Ph.D. researchers than M.D. clinician researchers, and the strategic plan seems to recommend more physicians in the mix. In ten years will NIEHS have mostly MDs in the lab?
Physicians have always played key roles at NIEHS, but most of our scientists and grantees are PhDs. So our renewed emphasis on encouraging clinicians to participate in environmental health science research is simply a matter of emphasis and balance, not a switch from one to the other. The real objective is to get clinicians more often into the mix of interdisciplinary research.
In tight budget times, to undertake new programs, and especially expensive ones like clinical research, must certainly mean that cuts will be made in other areas. What's being cut to free up funds for the new programs?
Fortunately, few if any programs funded by the NIEHS are set up in perpetuity. Everything comes around regularly for review and reconsideration, and this process has been ongoing since the beginning of the Institute. So significant portions of budgeting for our new efforts can be done as attrition and the natural re-application for grants occurs.
Why the five year time line on this strategic plan? What will happen in 2011?
There's nothing magic about five years. We see this document as a starting point, one that will evolve with new opportunities. The NIEHS wanted to plan far enough into the future so that tangible progress and results could be expected by the end of the plan's intended time frame. Even within five years, much can—and will—change with our advancing understanding of environmental health sciences.