The National Institutes of Health has a new chief for its environmental health institute, which has been leaderless since David Schwartz left in February under a cloud of controversy. Federal toxicologist Linda Birnbaum will become director of the $730 million National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, in January.
Birnbaum is an expert on a controversial topic: dioxin and other hormone-like pollutants that may contribute to cancer and other human health problems. She has spent nearly 29 years in government, first at NIEHS and more recently at the Environmental Protection Agency's research lab near NIEHS. That resume has some researchers worried that Birnbaum might favor regulatory science over investigator-initiated research. Others, however, are encouraged by her strong record of research on biological mechanisms.
One big plus for Birnbaum in her new job: support from the environmental community, which, along with some lawmakers, attacked Schwartz, a pulmonologist, for emphasizing clinical research and proposing to sell off NIEHS's journal. In the end, Schwartz left over ethics concerns. With morale in the doldrums at NIEHS, some scientists there say whatever Birnbaum's shortcomings, they're glad to be moving on with a new leader.