Measuring the Success of Community Science: The Northern California Household Exposure Study

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND: Environmental health research involving community participation has increased substantially since the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) environmental justice and community-based participatory research (CBPR) partnerships began in the mid-1990s. The goals of these partnerships are to inform and empower better decisions about exposures, foster trust, and generate scientific knowledge to reduce environmental health disparities in low-income, minority communities. Peer-reviewed publication and clinical health outcomes alone are inadequate criteria to judge the success of projects in meeting these goals; therefore, new strategies for evaluating success are needed.

OBJECTIVES: We reviewed the methods used to evaluate our project, "Linking Breast Cancer Advocacy and Environmental Justice," to help identify successful CBPR methods and to assist other teams in documenting effectiveness. Although our project precedes the development of the NIEHS Evaluation Metrics Manual, a schema to evaluate the success of projects funded through the Partnerships in Environmental Public Health (PEPH), our work reported here illustrates the record keeping and self-reflection anticipated in NIEHS's PEPH.

DISCUSSION: Evaluation strategies should assess how CBPR partnerships meet the goals of all partners. Our partnership, which included two strong community-based organizations, produced a team that helped all partners gain organizational capacity. Environmental sampling in homes and reporting the results of that effort had community education and constituency-building benefits. Scientific results contributed to a court decision that required cumulative impact assessment for an oil refineiy and to new policies for chemicals used in consumer products. All partners leveraged additional funding to extend their work.

CONCLUSIONS: An appropriate evaluation strategy can demonstrate how CBPR projects can advance science, support community empowerment, increase environmental health literacy, and generate individual and policy action to protect health.

KEY WORDS: breast cancer, community-based participatory research, environmental justice, evaluation metrics, exposure science. Environ Health Perspect 120:326--331 (2012). http://dx.doi. org/10.1289/ehp. 1103734 [Online 6 December 2011 ]

Community-based participatory research (CBPR) is an approach to academic-community partnerships that shares power with community partners in all aspects of the research process and benefits communities through interventions or policy change. CBPR projects increase community engagement in research to generate scientific knowledge, improve public trust and understanding of environmental health science, inform culturally and socially appropriate intervention methods, improve public health decisions and stimulate action, and contribute to environmental justice (EJ) (Minkier et al. 2008; O'Fallon and Dearry 2002). Grants supporting research that involves community participation have increased dramatically and gained in academic respectability since 1996, when the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) started funding such research (Wolfson and Parries 2010), which, in turn, led to increasing pressure to more precisely evaluate outcomes (Drew et al. 2010).

Evaluating CBPR success can be difficult, because peer-reviewed publication and clinical health outcomes alone are inadequate criteria and even tangential 10 many community partnerships. A recent contribution to CBPR evaluation extracted outcomes from grantee reports (Baron et al. 2009), but the information accessible in the reports was limited because the evaluation metrics were newr and research teams had not yet consistently implemented them. In addition, these reports focused on successful outcomes, omitting process factors, challenges, and failures.

To help stimulate other reams to think more thoroughly and expansively about the outcomes of their CBPR work, we report here on the northern California Household Exposure Study (HES), which was funded through a grant titled "Linking Breast Cancer Advocacy and Environmental Justice" under NIEHS's EJ program (Silent Spring Institute 201 lb). …