Climate change is a global process that affects human health in a variety of complex ways. Wildfires, heat waves, hurricanes, floods, and other climate-related weather events can result in illness, injury, and death. Indirect health threats are cause for concern, too. For example, changes in temperature and rainfall can affect the lifecycle of mosquitoes that transmit diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, thereby paving the way for new outbreaks.
Environmental disruptions worsened by climate change can reduce air quality, diminish water resources, and increase exposure to higher temperatures and pathogens. As a result, we see greater health risks in susceptible individuals such as children, the elderly, the poor, and people with underlying conditions, both in America and around the world.
For decades, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and other NIH institutes and centers (ICs) have advanced important research into how climate change affects health. But expanding knowledge in this area and addressing other key challenges will require much more collaboration. The time is now for an all-hands-on-deck scientific effort—across NIH and the wider biomedical research community—that spans many interconnected disciplines and fields of inquiry.
That is why I am excited to join forces with several other IC directors to launch the NIH Climate Change and Health Initiative. By working together, NIH institutes and centers can harness their technologies, innovative research approaches, and talent to advance the science of climate change and health. Through this timely effort, we will promote resilience in vulnerable communities because our research will help them to understand, prepare for, and recover from climate-related health challenges.
Our Strategic Framework outlines why it is important to go beyond studying the health effects of climate change. We must involve impacted communities in solutions-focused research that empowers them, health care practitioners, and health and social services agencies to reduce climate-related health risks. By generating scientific evidence for public health action, we can use a health equity approach to boost climate resiliency among at-risk groups, whether in the U.S. or low- and middle-income countries.
At the heart of the initiative is a push for transdisciplinary, team-based science that boosts training, research capacity, and community engagement. Our immediate goals are to use existing grant programs to strengthen research infrastructure and enhance communication, internally and externally.
Also, with dedicated support from several ICs and the Office of the Director (OD), NIH is funding a research coordinating center and a community engagement program. The coordinating center will help NIH scientists collaborate and manage data. And the community engagement program will empower underserved populations by encouraging two-way dialogue in which both scientists and community members learn from each other. That inclusive approach will improve research and mitigation efforts and reduce health disparities.
In addition, several Notices of Special Interest are now open for applications. The NIH invites scientists to submit research proposals outlining how they plan either to study the health effects of climate change or develop new technologies to mitigate those effects. Also, with OD support, a Climate and Health Scholars Program will launch later this year. Scientists working on important research will share their expertise and methodologies with the NIH community, spurring opportunities for further collaboration.
Going forward, any additional support from the White House, Congress, and the public will allow NIH to further expand the initiative. For example, we urgently need to test novel interventions for reducing heat stress among agricultural workers and to scale up early-warning systems for climate-related weather events. There is also opportunity to use laboratory-based and clinical methodologies to expand knowledge of how climate factors, such as heat and humidity, affect key cellular systems, including mitochondrial function.
To fill those and other research gaps, we must draw on an array of skill sets and fields of inquiry. Therefore, our Strategic Framework outlines the importance of supporting adaptation research, basic and mechanistic studies, behavioral and social sciences research, data integration, disaster research response, dissemination and implementation science, epidemiology and predictive modeling, exposure and risk assessment, and systems science. Tapping into those areas will help us tackle climate-related health challenges and develop effective solutions.
In recent years, in-depth reports and assessments have provided conclusive evidence that climate change is significantly altering our environment and impacting human health. Although the science of climate change and health has progressed, much work remains. We hope that the Climate Change and Health Initiative expands scientific partnerships and capacity throughout NIH and across the global biomedical and environmental health sciences communities. Greater collaboration will spur new knowledge, interventions, and technologies that help humanity manage the health effects of climate change and strengthen health equity.
(Note: The Initiative’s Executive Committee includes the following IC directors: Richard Woychik, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences [chair]; Diana Bianchi, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Gary Gibbons, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Roger Glass, Fogarty International Center; Joshua Gordon, National Institute of Mental Health; Eliseo Pérez-Stable, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities; and Shannon Zenk, National Institute of Nursing Research.)
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 14th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen unprecedented, rapid scientific collaboration, as experts around the world in discrete, previously disconnected fields, have found ways to collaborate to face a common cause. For example, physicists helped respiratory specialists understand how virus particles could spread in air, leading to improved mitigation strategies. Specialists in cardiovascular science, neuroscience, immunology, and other fields are now working together to understand and address Long COVID. Over the past two years, we have also seen remarkable international sharing of epidemiological data and information on effects of vaccines.
Science is increasingly a team activity, which is true for many fields, not just biomedicine. The professional diversity of research teams reflects the increased complexity of the questions science is called upon to answer. This is especially obvious in the study of the brain, which is the most complex system known to us.
Besides the BRAIN Initiative, other multi-institute NIH research projects are applying team science to complex research questions, such as those related to neurodevelopment, addiction, and pain. The Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®, created a team-based research framework to advance promising pain therapeutics quickly to clinical testing.
In the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, which is led by NIDA in close partnership with NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and other NIH institutes, 21 research centers are collecting behavioral, biospecimen, and neuroimaging data from 11,878 children from age 10 through their teens. Teams led by experts in adolescent psychiatry, developmental psychology, and pediatrics interview participants and their families. These experts then gather a battery of health metrics from psychological, cognitive, sociocultural, and physical assessments, including collection and analysis of various kinds of biospecimens (blood, saliva). Further, experts in biophysics gather information on the structure and function of participants’ brains every two years.
A similar study of young children in the first decade of life beginning with the prenatal period, the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study, supported by HEAL, NIDA, and several other NIH institutes and centers, is now underway at 25 research sites across the country. A range of scientific specialists, similar to that in the ABCD study, is involved in this effort. In this case, they are aided by experts in obstetric care and in infant neuroimaging.
For both of these studies, teams of data scientists validate and curate all the information generated and make it available to researchers across the world. This makes it possible to investigate complex questions such as human neurodevelopmental diversity and the effects of genes and social experiences and their relation to mental health. More than half of the publications using ABCD data have been authored by non-ABCD investigators taking advantage of the open-access format.
Yet, institutions that conduct and fund science—including NIH—have been slow to support and reward collaboration. Because authorship and funding are so important in tenure and promotion decisions at universities, for example, an individual’s contribution to larger, multi-investigator projects on which they may not be the grantee or lead author on a study publication may carry less weight.
For this reason, early-career scientists may be particularly reluctant to collaborate on team projects. Among the recommendations of a 2015 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science, was that universities and other institutions should find effective ways to give credit for team-based work to assist promotion and tenure committees.
The strongest teams will be diverse in other respects, not just scientific expertise. Besides more actively fostering productive collaborations across disciplines, NIH is making a more concerted effort to promote racial equity and inclusivity in our research workforce, both through the NIH UNITE Initiative and through Institute-specific initiatives like NIDA’s Racial Equity Initiative.
To promote diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility in research, the BRAIN Initiative recently added a requirement in most of its funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) that has applicants include a Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives (PEDP) in the proposed research. The PEDPs are evaluated and scored during the peer review as part of the holistic considerations used to inform funding decisions. These long-overdue measures will not only ensure that NIH-funded science is more diverse, but they are also important steps toward studying and addressing social determinants of health and the health disparities that exist for so many conditions.
Increasingly, scientific discovery is as much about exploring new connections between different kinds of researchers as it is about finding new relationships among different kinds of scientific databases. The challenges before us are great—ending the COVID pandemic, finding a solution to the addiction and overdose crisis, and so many others—and increased collaboration between scientists will give us the greatest chance to successfully overcome these challenges.
Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 13th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.