Essays on the Future of Environmental Health Research: A Tribute to Dr. Kenneth Olden

Article excerpt

Since his appointment in 1991 as the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), Dr. Kenneth Olden has worked steadfastly to develop the field of environmental health. As a result of his efforts during an almost 14-year tenure, the field of environmental health has matured and expanded to become one of the most comprehensive and humanly relevant disciplines in science. Because of Olden's vision, we no longer concern ourselves only with the toxicity of physical agents--we now explore the effects of lifestyle, social and economic factors, and the built environment on human health.

Dr. Olden's policies emphasized the need to bring all interested parties--government, industry, academia, and the lay public--into discourse on complex and often controversial environmental health issues. For this reason, Olden created innovative research and risk assessment centers within the NIEHS and the NTP comprised of representatives from all the above-mentioned sectors. Examples of the centers include the Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods and the Toxicogenomics Research Consortium. He also expanded the network of NIEHS-funded Environmental Health Sciences Centers that emphasize multidisciplinary research collaboration and coordination. To ensure community involvement, he made it mandatory for each NIEHS-funded center to have a Community Outreach and Education Program that was responsive to local environmental health problems, particularly those of poor and minority populations.

Olden worked particularly hard to bring the lay public into the often intimidating and exclusive scientific process so that "regular citizens" could have a voice in important public health decisions. He established the NIEHS Public Interest Liaison Group, which allowed members of advocacy groups who previously had little access to decision makers to provide input on research directions and translation to disease prevention and treatment. In the late 1990s, Olden instituted a series of town meetings throughout the United States so that he could hear firsthand environmental concerns from the public.

Many scientific advances have been achieved during Olden's tenure. But, as a true humanitarian, his greater goal was to ensure that these advances were rapidly translated into real improvements in human health through both clinical practice and public health policy. …