A scant 18 months ago, the NIH Office of Community Liaison was born amid frequent - and often angry - headlines in local papers that chronicled NIH's inadequacies as a neighbor and steward of the environment. The office has quickly come of age, aided by the intramural scientists who played an important role in NIH's first wave of response to community criticism.
Our whirlwind accomplishments include conducting soil tests on the campus, forming an ad hoc group of scientists and technicians that found that NIH's incineration of medical and pathological waste has not had a negative impact on the environment and neighborhood, revising the NIH Bethesda Campus Master Plan, and establishing a structure for information exchange with our neighbors.
The impetus for these changes stems from a May 1994 meeting at which NIH Director Harold Varmus and community leaders negotiated several agreements. At the time, the most pressing community concern was NIH's incineration of medical pathological waste on campus - a practice that was permanently halted shortly after the meeting. That action left NIH with a pressing need to find alternative ways to handle such waste and to reduce its volume.
The Environmental Concerns Working Group was formed to address that and other problems. NHLBI's Hank Fales chaired a subgroup on alternative waste strategies that through research, field trips, and interviews completed a report on requirements for an acceptable on campus technology for waste disposal that will be indispensible as we plan for the future. A recycling subgroup, headed by NCI's Kira Lueders, developed a blueprint for a campus-wide recycling program and implemented voluntary and interim programs that include recycling of pipet-tip racks, white paper, and aluminum cans in some buildings. NIDDK's Jane Sayer chaired a subgroup that took on the formidable task of developing procedures to replace paper catalogs with electronic ordering systems, tighten procedures for ensuring correct mail delivery, and reduce paper use in laboratories and offices.
Hand in glove with concerns about incineration was the community's fear that NIH's past incineration had harmed the environment and neighborhood. To address those worries, NIH worked with the community to test 45 sites on campus in accordance with the Environmental Protection Agency's standard protocols. A panel of 12 nationally renowned scientists and technicians was convened to evaluate the soil-testing results and assess the impact of those results on the campus and neighborhood. The experts' findings were expected to be available by the end of April.
Perhaps the most rewarding activities have resulted from NIH's commitment to listen more closely to the community, to revise the content of the NIH Master Plan, and to be more sensitive to the impact of traffic, construction, noise, and pollution.
Since the 1994 accord, better and more explanatory signs about construction projects have become standard across campus. Community briefings were held on sensitive subjects such as plans to reduce emissions from the boilers and reduce noise from the chillers in the Power Plant in Building 11. Neighbors also worked with NIH to mitigate noise and light from Multi-Level Parking Lot-8 by installing louvers and landscaping.
The revision of the draft NIH Master Plan resulted in a remarkable partnership. For more than a year, my office and other NIH staff and consultants worked closely and regularly with a Master Plan Community Group composed of representatives from 30 neighborhoods, the National Capital Planning Commission, the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, and the Montgomery County Council and government offices. After extensive public scrutiny and review, the National Capital Planning Commission approved the NIH Master Plan on Feb. 1, citing the plan and our outreach to the community as a model for other federal agencies to follow.
Despite these impressive strides, much remains to be done. Acting on behalf of the Office of the Director and the entire NIH community, the Office of Community Liaison will continue to promote the policy of openness and collaboration as the new Master Plan is implemented. It is also my hope that we can extend many of our resources to our neighbors, such as improving the ways we share information on health promotion, disease prevention, and science education. Today, NIH is an unequaled national resource. In the future, I hope it will also be renowned as a unique and positive community resource.
To help achieve this goal, intramural researchers can send their comments and suggestions to me at the Office of Community Liaison (phone: 496-3931; fax: 594-2592; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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