Toxicologist to Become an NIH Director

Long-time readers of Science News will recognize the name Linda Birnbaum. Today, this toxicologist — an expert not only on dioxinsand their kin, but also on brominated flame retardants— was named the incoming director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. It’s one of the smaller siblings among 27 members of the NIH family and the only one devoted to understanding environmental causes of disease.

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The institute Birnbaum takes over on Jan. 1 is located in <!—->Research Triangle Park, N.C. Well removed from NIH’s main campus here in the DC burbs, it’s been where Birnbaum has spent most of her working career — first at NIEHS, and later at the Environmental Protection Agency. Indeed, for 16 years she served as EPA’s director of experimental toxicology.

 

NIEHS is probably best known as the publisher of Environmental Health Perspectives, an open-access peer-reviewed journal on environmental risks and hazards. But with a $730 million budget, NIEHS also funds 1,240 scientific grants. Internal research at the agency has, over the decades, made many of the discoveries that underlie a burgeoning field of science that has come to be known as endocrine disruption — or hormone mimicry by environmental agents.

 

Active in research, Birnbaum has been an author on more than 600 peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, abstracts, and reports. She’s president-elect of the International Union of Toxicology(an umbrella group of societies in more than 50 countries), a recent president of the Society of Toxicology(the world’s largest professional organization of toxicologists), and former chair of toxicology at the American Society of Pharmacology and Therapeutics. In other words, she has the creds.

 

I’m more familiar with another side of her professional persona: the communicator.

 

As a reporter who has worked with Birnbaum for probably 20 years, I’ve found her singularly articulate in explaining the often arcane effects and mechanisms by which many environmental agents cause harm. A straight shooter, she won’t hazard wild guesses about implications of her data, but she will offer informed speculation. The kind of comments, for instance, she’d share with colleagues at a research conference.

 

She doesn’t look for attention or grandstand, but she will speak up repeatedly to keep colleagues grounded on what the data that they’re considering show — or don’t show. She also points out what kinds of studies would be required to fill in all those niggling data gaps. These would be the investigations needed to understand whether the chemicals we encounter in the home, workplace and environment are likely to be benign or not — at the doses to which we may be exposed.


Earlier this year, David Schwartz resigned from his post as NIEHS director under a very gray cloud. One of his sins: He tried to undertake a quick privatizatiop of Environmental Health Perspectives. Researchers and many Capitol Hill investigators suspected this would effectively kill the publication or keep it from publishing groundbreaking data on issues the Bush administration would prefer not come to light. EHP remains a wholly owned government-administered entity. But the likelihood it would be sold or materially changed remained touch-and-go for a long time.

 

Schwartz also had a distinctly different attitude than Birnbaum about the news media. He encouraged his staff to shun reporters or to find ways to limit contact with them as much as possible. Schwartz also had been under congressional scrutiny for alleged ethics violations.

 

As people look for science to once again hold sway in research agencies, appointments like Birnbaum’s appear to be a step in the right direction.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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