Tackling the Research Challenges of Health and Climate Change
Glass, Roger, Rosenthal, Joshua, Jessup, Christine M., Birnbaum, Linda, Portier, Chris, Environmental Health Perspectives
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Ebi et al. (2009) presented a timely and important analysis of the federal investment in research focused on understanding, avoiding, preparing for, and adapting to the health impacts of climate variability and change. The authors argued that the public health community is inadequately prepared to address the health risks associated with climate variability and change, and that landing necessary to address this challenge is inadequate. Ebi et al. (2009) were particularly critical of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for overstating its investments in research on the health impacts of climate change, citing a 2007 NIH spending report of $164 million for Health Effects of Climate Change. We would like to respond by highlighting two current activities of the NIH that address these issues: the Trans-NIH Working Group on Climate Change and Health (led by the FIC) and an interagency working group on climate change and health (led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences). Both activities are in midstream, but we plan to have initial products and recommendations available by the fall 2009.
In 2008, a planning group was convened at the NIH to assess the research questions in health and medicine that climate change presents. Sixteen NIH institutes and centers are actively participating in the Trans-NIH Working Group on Climate Change and Health, with coordination from the Fogarty International Center (FIC). The working group is a) analyzing the relevance of the NIH portfolio in this area; b) engaging the biomedical research community in a discussion of the health effects of climate change; and c) identifying research needs and priorities for an NIH research agenda for climate change and health, including the development and evaluation of clinical and public health strategies for adaptation to a changing world.
In January 2009, an interagency working group was formed to identify areas in which strategic research on the linkage between climate change, the environment, and human health could greatly enhance our understanding. Led by the NIEHS, this group was formed to expand the activities of the NIH-focused activity and aid in the coordination of a broader research effort focused on human health for the entire U.S. government research community. The working group is a) examining the research portfolio on the health impacts of climate change across the U.S. government; b) expanding the dialogue among federal agencies to help coordinate the diverse missions of the U.S. government agencies; and c) developing a general conceptual model for research needs to aid in research coordination. The results of this interagency working group, when combined with the Trans-NIH Working Group, will guide the NIH in developing a research portfolio that is science driven and directly relevant to the needs for prevention and intervention to protect human health from climate change.
Assessing the relationship of basic research projects to policy-defined problems is often challenging. For climate change and biomedical research, the challenge is compounded by the complexity of the interaction pathways between climate variables, environmental change, and human health outcomes. Furthermore, concerns over the nature and magnitude of the health threats have changed considerably in the past few years. The figures cited by the NIH for Health Effects of Climate Change in recent years reflected studies that are principally basic human biology related to conditions that are sensitive to climate and atmospheric phenomena, including ultraviolet radiation, To provide an analysis of the NIH portfolio that is more relevant to the current policy concerns with effects of global warming, we are utilizing the new NIH grant fingerprinting technology [Research, Condition, and Disease Categorization (RCDC)] to capture all the potentially relevant projects, followed by a manual process in which experts from the institutes and centers that administer the grants categorize this diverse pool of projects into three general bins: a) those with a climate change focus, b) those that address climate parameters, and c) those that address human conditions that are climate sensitive. …