Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Using Community-Based Participatory Research to Ask and Answer Questions regarding the Environment and Health

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Using Community-Based Participatory Research to Ask and Answer Questions regarding the Environment and Health

Article excerpt

The Olden Years

In 1991 Dr. Kenneth Olden became the first African-American director of an institute in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) when he assumed the leadership of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) (Brown 2004). That same year, the NIEHS-with Dr. Olden in prominent attendance--hosted the Interagency Symposium on Health Research Needs to Ensure Environmental Justice, which was held 11 February 1994 in Arlington, Virginia (Shepard et al. 2002). Throughout his tenure at the helm of NIEHS, Dr. Olden has listened to the needs, both small and large, of communities that have experienced severe disparities in both environmental exposures and health outcomes. This has been vital to the development and implementation of grant programs designed specifically in response to the concerns voiced by underserved constituencies, notably, people of color, immigrants, and poor and working class populations in both urban and rural areas.

As one manifestation of its commitment to community involvement in the research enterprise, the NIEHS has been at the forefront of U.S. funding agencies in using community-based participatory research (CBPR) as a tool to advance environmental health sciences (O'Fallon and Dearry 2002), thereby addressing social disparities in health (Northridge et al. 200Oa). The NIEHS defines CBPR as a methodology that promotes active community involvement in the processes that shape research and intervention strategies, as well as in the conduct of research studies (O'Fallon et al. 2000). Recently, Minkler and Wallerstein (2003) have argued that CBPR is not a method or set of methods but rather an orientation to research that changes the role of the researcher and the "researched." For well-conceived and time-tested recommendations for using CBPR in health initiatives, we continue to point students and colleagues to two landmark reviews by Green et al. (1995) and Israel et al. (1998).

Regardless of how CBPR is defined, there is little doubt that this approach to the research enterprise has gained wider recognition and acceptance under Dr. Olden's leadership at the NIEHS. Indeed, the "adolescent years" (Northridge et al. 2000b) have matured into adulthood. Two of the prominent initiatives within the NIEHS Translational Research Program--namely, Environmental Justice: Partnerships for Communication (initiated in 1993) and Community-Based Participatory Research (initiated in 1995)--have helped institutionalize CBPR within the NIEHS per se (NIEHS 2001).

Finally, the NIEHS has partnered with other agencies and divisions within the NIH on collaborative initiatives that foster and/or mandate the inclusion of studies using CBPR approaches. These include but are not limited to the 12 Centers for Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research [a collaborative program of the NIEHS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was initiated in 1998 (NIEHS 2003a)] and the eight Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities [a joint program of four institutes/offices within the NIH consisting of the NIEHS, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Aging, and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR), which was initiated as recently as 2003 (NIEHS 2003b)]. As the next director of the NIEHS is handed the leadership baton, it is important that CBPR approaches continue to be valued as a means of providing scientific answers to research questions that communities care about regarding the environment and health.

Asking the Research Questions That Matter to Communities

In a conference convened at the NIH in May 2004 by the OBSSR, William R. Shadish from the University of California, Merced, summarized 2 days of discussion on alternatives to randomized experiments by emphasizing that the research question should drive the method. …

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