The Brown SBRP outreach and translation activities are designed to integrate the efforts of academic, community, and regulatory partners to provide both outreach and consultancy to community groups who need technical assistance and leadership development, as well as a suite of well-coordinated research translation activities that serve the goals of remediation of contaminated sites within the state. More importantly, however, the Brown SBRP experience shows that the SBRP can be a vehicle for bringing multiple forms of expertise to bear on such problems, and that academic researchers have the potential to bridge the gaps that often exist between community groups and state regulators. This bridge-building function was best served at the outset by ensuring that relationships among the partners are well defined with respect to their core functions, but allowing both research translation and outreach functions enough flexibility so that they could respond to new concerns that were identified by their respective constituencies and cooperate on common goals.
This close relationship between outreach and translation activities is fairly unique among SBRP grantees, and the Brown SBRP has attracted some attention at recent grantee meetings as a result. Researchers and program staff from other institutions have asked questions about the role of the State Agency Liaison in helping to assess the needs of the regulatory community. In response, the research translation team emphasizes the state-based approach as a key element in building credibility and trust among Rhode Island’s professional and regulatory community. Researchers from other institutions have also inquired about the challenges and difficulties of working directly with community groups, often stating that they are hesitant to engage directly with the community because of the time-intensive nature of the work or concerns over political allegiances. While the Brown team has certainly experienced these barriers, they have found that taking pains at the outset to specify the relationships between the research translation and outreach cores and their target constituencies paid off in the end by easing the anxieties that all parties had about working together, and thus led the way to the cooperation and collaboration that made the ECHO loan program possible. In particular, the inclusion of sociologists on the outreach team has raised the awareness of all team members of the long history of contentious relationships between community groups and regulatory agencies. The social scientists on the outreach team have longstanding commitments to community engaged research, and have sensitized all members of the team to the importance of trust and cooperation in community-based work. Social science involvement in SBRP and other environmental health research contributes significantly for several reasons. First, as we show in our background section, social scientists have led the way in studying the social, economic, and psychological impacts of toxic waste contamination. Second, social scientists are sensitized to the importance of trustworthy, personal connections with stakeholders, thus enabling interdisciplinary collaborations such as the ECHO program. Third, social scientists, especially medical sociologists and environmental sociologists, have a long tradition of successful collaboration with community activists. This allows them to share with their colleagues in the biomedical and engineering sciences the value of such collaborations and partnerships.
Since the passage of the ECHO loan program, the Brown SBRP partners have cooperated on other projects as well. In the summer of 2006, RIDEM was ordered by a state court to convene a stakeholders group to design a process that would ensure adequate community involvement in decisions about the remediation and reuse of contaminated sites. The Brown research translation partners at RIDEM invited the Brown outreach core director to participate on this panel. He pressed RIDEM to include members of the affected community groups in this dialog, and as a result, the stakeholders panel includes regulators, developers, business leaders, and several members of various community groups. As a group, these community representatives to the stakeholders panel represent a diverse set of communities and interests. These relationships were made possible in part through the network of community groups involved in the Brown SBRP outreach activities, but were brought into this process through the relationship between the outreach and research translation staff.
Centuries of industrial activity have left the United States with a substantial burden of toxic contamination. For more than two decades now, social scientific scholarship has demonstrated that the problems attendant upon toxic sites extend well beyond the purely technical aspects of site remediation. Contamination has substantial social and psychological effects on individuals and on the communities in which they live. In the broadest possible eco-social sense, remediation ought to restore a community’s sense of wholeness, safety, and integrity, as well as restoring clean air, soil, and water to their environs. Through its history of requiring research programs to engage with the public—through outreach and research translation activities—the NIEHS has acknowledged the broader eco-social realities of the multiple impacts of contamination, and has pushed academic researchers to bridge their scientific inquiry to community concerns about health and social well-being.
The NIEHS recently renewed its commitment to this tradition of community engagement by launching a unified program hailed as “Partnerships for Environmental Public Health.” NIEHS issued a Request for Information to obtain input on what academics, community stakeholders, and government officials need and expect from environmental health research. This program will fund hypothesis-driven research in which community members are full partners in the research endeavor. Doing so may demand new approaches to engaging communities, or the development of materials that will increase community awareness of environmental health. The NIEHS is already funding programs that address some of these goals, including the SBRP, but also other research programs designed around specific diseases or conditions (e.g., the Centers of Excellence on Breast Cancer and the Environment; the program on Obesity and the Built Environment) or that address specific, vulnerable populations (e.g., the Centers for Children’s Environmental Health or the Worker Education and Training Program). In response to the feedback received, the Partnerships program issued a special supplementary grant program for an additional year of funding for existing NIEHS grants that involve community outreach. The expansion of these programs through this new, broader initiative presents an optimal moment to reflect on the elements that make research translation and outreach efforts successful, in the hopes of distilling out the lessons to be learned from integrating research translation and outreach with the demands of a successful basic science program.
The Brown SBRP model is a case study that demonstrates how a basic science program can achieve such success. A robust model of community engagement is critical to Brown’s success, however, on both the research translation and outreach sides. Even among basic science programs that require outreach components, few engage communities or citizen action groups as directly as the Brown SBRP does. A more typical model is for outreach activities to be directed at regional or state-level offices of regulatory agencies, or toward health care professionals or other professional groups. In this sense, communities are somewhat narrowly identified, and their role is often defined as an audience for research findings, rather than as partners in the research process. While arrangements such as these may be efficient at communicating research findings to the outside world, it is questionable whether they truly fulfill the NIEHS’s expectations for the its basic research initiatives—that they will become a suite of combined research and outreach activities that proactively engage multiple stakeholders. These goals are best served by vigorous outreach programs that seek to develop a reciprocal relationship between researchers and communities.
A second critical component of Brown’s success may be traced to the integration and coordination between research translation and outreach activities, and the extent to which those efforts are merged with the scientific goals of the grant, the remediation of complex mixtures and land reuse in a state-based context. In keeping with the NIEHS mandate to make research an “accountable enterprise,” the Brown SBRP research translation and outreach teams have collaborated with stakeholders at two levels: regulatory agencies and community action groups. To clarify the parameters of this engagement, clear lines of communication were established at the outset, with research translation staff working primarily with regulatory agency personnel and the outreach team working more closely with community activists. These lines of communication were flexible enough, however, to allow for cooperation and communication on important goals that cut across the common concerns held by all parties. This led to success on an important outreach goal, to help a community that is coping with a profound and prolonged toxic contamination crisis. Although the scientific projects have not yet been engaged around the Tiverton site to quite the same degree as the research translation and outreach teams, the site has highlighted the pressing nature of questions about complex mixtures, and suggested some new research questions that may be incorporated into future biomedical or engineering projects. This provides a model for future outreach and translation projects, by showing how work on a specific outreach need can also serve to focus the team’s attention on scientific issues that fit with the overall scientific themes of the program. Engaging with regulatory agencies and community groups around the broad themes of the grant ensures that the entire program remains grounded in research questions that matter most to the diverse constituencies served.
Investigators funded through basic research programs that include outreach and translation mandates should view these activities as an opportunity to add value to their entire suite of program activities. The Brown SBRP example demonstrates that although there may be challenges in collaborating with a diverse roster of stakeholders, academic researchers can, in fact, build bridges among these groups so that all stakeholders may participate creatively and cooperatively in finding solutions to a wide variety of problems that are often present around contaminated sites.