Q&A with NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum: Looking toward the Future of New Environmental Research

Article excerpt

For those who are not familiar with it, what is the strategic plan and why is it important?

The strategic plan sets the direction that the institute will be focusing on for at least (the) next five years. It lays out our mission and our vision, and our major themes and the goals that we're going to be using to achieve all of that. It's a broad, overarching approach. We know that we cannot do all of it. But we're hoping that we're kind of providing leadership to the whole field of environmental health sciences.

How was this strategic plan developed? Was it a collaborative process?

This was not a plan that was developed by myself and some of my leaders going into a room and scratching our heads and saying, "What do we think are the key issues in environmental health sciences over the next five years?" It was a plan where we brought in our stakeholders, collaborators, grantees, the political folks, we brought in a wide variety of folks. We said "Give us your great ideas." That actually followed up on an idea where we put a call out on the Web and asked for great ideas and we got over 10,000 hits. We got hundreds and hundreds of ideas. People ... expressed their interest in which of the ideas they thought were most important. Development of the plan was a very inclusive process and wide-ranging process.

One of the goals listed in the plan is to establish an environmental health disparities research agenda. Since health disparities are so varied and wide ranging, how will you frame that issue?

We've been involved in disparities for many years here at NIEHS. We've been involved in the environmental justice movement since it got started. We're interested in all kinds of health disparities and also interested in global health as well. We know that often the most disadvantaged people are the ones who have the highest exposure (to) environmental stressors. One of the approaches we take is we are investing in the whole idea of participatory-based research. You can't do community or epidemiological studies in a community unless the community is involved from the get-go. You can't go into a community, tell them what you want to do, do it to them and then tell them what you found. That's not the way you're going to have successful work going on. So we actually have now an umbrella program (that) is focusing on environmental public health issues called the Partnerships for Environmental Public Health, which is focusing on environmental justice and health disparities and community-based research, which fall under that very large umbrella.

What will be the role of partnerships in realizing the goals outlined in the plan?

In all of our programs ... we have a requirement that there be a community partnership involved in that effort. We're actually engaging them from the get-go, from the very beginning. In our breast cancer and the environment research program, which is a program that we co-fund with the National Cancer Institute, we've established a number of pubertal cohorts of young girls starting at the age of 6 or 7. We followed those girls; they're now about 11-13. We're continuing to follow them. But if you think you could go, especially into a minority community, and say, "Oh, we're going to measure your girls to see how far they've advanced in puberty," I mean, forget it. We've gotten the community involved. The community is interested and is involved not only in helping recruit girls who are part of the program, but also right from the beginning in helping to work out culturally appropriate models. Now another thing that we do is several times a year ... I actually go out to various impacted communities and hold public meetings. Basically, we hold community forums, which is an opportunity for me not only to meet members of the community but to respond to their questions.

Have you found those meetings with communities to be helpful? …