The Role of Town Meetings in Environmental Health Research

By Cranmer, Joan M. | Environmental Health Perspectives, August 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Role of Town Meetings in Environmental Health Research


Cranmer, Joan M., Environmental Health Perspectives


Kenneth Olden created an arsenal of mechanisms that enabled the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to reach out to the American people and be responsive to their environmental health concerns. Commitment to the community has been a cornerstone of the research process during Dr. 01den's distinguished, nearly 14-year tenure as director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program. He is unique among National Institutes of Health (NIH) institute directors in his unrelenting and successful mission to gather direct input from affected communities and partner with them to set a national environmental health research agenda.

What Is a National Environmental Health Research Agenda and How Is It Set?

The national environmental health research agenda is a template or "master plan" that the NIEHS formulates to determine how it will use its resources. Setting the agenda is a comprehensive interactive process by which the institute seeks extensive input and determines its future research priorities. The agenda requires NIEHS to devise a research and education strategy that advances our understanding of the causes and mechanisms of environmentally related diseases. The strategy includes translating this knowledge into effective prevention and clinical applications-collectively referred to as "translational research." Furthermore, the strategy is designed to be directly responsive to the public and to protect those most affected by adverse environmental exposures-that is, to provide environmental justice.

The NIEHS uses a broad and diverse array of constituencies and strategies to gather input for setting its environmental health research agenda. As director, Ken Olden led his institute to do all it could to truly improve the health and lives of the American people. For him, the term "environment" does not just include chemical and physical agents. He broadened the definition of environment to include also food and nutrients, biological agents, prescription drugs, lifestyle choices, social and economic factors, the built environment (Brown et al. 2004; Srinivasan et al. 2002), and oceans (Laws and Yanagihara 2004). The director and NIEHS senior staff seek advice and extensive involvement from a broad array of leading scientists, health care professionals, advocates, policymakers, and community members. This guidance is essential for successful development of research and education strategies that use state-of-the-science methodologies to improve community public health.

NIEHS and the Community: A Strong Two-Way Partnership

With tremendous vision and an uncanny ability to see the whole picture, Dr. Olden conceived of many bold and innovative mechanisms to make his institute's science responsive to the American people. For more than a decade, the NIEHS has established itself as a leader in promoting the importance of collaborations between researchers and communities. As a federal agency with a mission emphasizing disease prevention, the NIEHS has become a proponent of community-university partnerships to address community health concerns so that communities have an active role in all stages of research (Olden 1993; Shepard et al. 2002). The NIEHS has long recognized the need to conduct basic science research in tandem with effective and culturally appropriate translational research activities, including community-based participatory research, outreach, and education (Bonham and Nathan 2002; Huynh 2002; Israel et al. 1998; Kone et al. 2000; Krieger et al. 2002; O'Fallon and Dearry 2001, 2002; O'Fallon et al. 2003).

During his distinguished tenure Dr. Olden initiated a wide range of strategies to seek input from the public it serves to ensure that NIEHS's research agenda and educational efforts were responsive to community concerns and needs. These strategies include workshops, retreats, outreach programs, community advisory groups, public interest liaison groups, community-university partnerships, and town meetings. …

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The Role of Town Meetings in Environmental Health Research
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