Setting research priorities in environment and health

WHO

“More research might not be needed” in environment and health in some cases, and “we should stop polishing the same stone ad nauseam, and move to different stones”. These are observations from a meeting organized by the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, Bonn, Germany , in collaboration with a Portuguese team from the Ministry of Health, the National Health Institute and the Medical School of the University of Lisbon. Hosted by the Municipality of Cascais in Portugal, the meeting was attended by 24 international experts and 10 observers, who gathered for two days on 27–28 April to discuss how to establish priorities in environment and health research.

Research in environment and health is of crucial strategic importance for contemporary society for numerous reasons, and is becoming even more critical given the increasingly fast pace of environmental change, the rapidly evolving global sustainability agenda, the ever-increasing sources of complexity and the growing expectations of the public. Yet, the environment and health community struggles to respond to these challenges; whilst research attempts to embrace complexity and respond to the real-life problems of European citizens, some important obstacles hinder progress with worrying signs emerging of a possible loss of trust.

Environment and health research involves the deployment of substantial human and financial resources. Its overall agenda is normally set through consultation between the expert community and multiple stakeholders, reflecting a variety of viewpoints, interests and values. While this approach has resulted in good progress, more clarity seems to be needed at the present juncture, given the rapidly evolving global sustainability agenda and the urgent need to inform more effectively the decision-making process.

So, what are the priorities for environment and health research, and how can such priorities be identified? The meeting revisited work of the last 25 years and built on past strategic thinking, which requires substantial updating. Research must be of high quality, but it must also have high value – the two do not necessarily go together. Value results from the relevance of the issues being studied (for example, the burden of disease, the frequency of exposure, the extent of inequalities), from whether an adverse impact can be prevented and from the degree to which it can help design better policies. At the same time, innovation is key; the production of new, ground-breaking knowledge should be given priority, including through funding high-risk research and educating new generations of researchers.

Some lingering questions remain: should research be guided by the concerns of the public? Should all data produced and used by researchers become publicly available? How should public bodies deal with the involvement of the private sector and the possible conflicts of interest?

The meeting is part of a project led by WHO and intended to inform its Member States on environment and health matters, on the eve of the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, to be held on 13–15 June in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Good environment and health research is a cornerstone of public health; inertia is not an option.