A kid shows off the fish he caught during a recreational fishing day organized by Project CAESARR (Community-Based Assessment of Exposure to Substances in the Anacostia River Region), a research project led by Dr. Sacoby Wilson to study the toxins found in Anacostia River fish, as well as to educate the public about toxins found in the river (no fish caught were consumed).

October 23, 2015

“Community engagement” is a buzzword familiar to public health researchers, as there is growing awareness of the value of partnerships with communities in identifying new knowledge and approaches to address health inequities and other real world problems. The US Environmental Protection Agency has recently begun to prioritize community engagement strategies to achieve its mission of protecting human health and the environment and addressing environmental injustices that disproportionately affect low income communities and communities of color. But how can federal funding institutions effectively bolster community engagement? Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges, assistant professor in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, and colleagues examined how the EPA incorporates or requires community engagement in research through its granting process.

Their study, published in the American Journal of Public Health on October 15, 2015, reviewed more than 300 of the EPA’s extramural research solicitations over a period of 16 years (1997-2013) and focused on those that discussed elements of community engagement (33 total). This is the first systematic review of community engagement in extramural RFAs (requests for applications) issued by the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research and was undertaken to identify ways to make EPA-funded research more relevant to communities.

“The RFA is critical because it frames the nature of the research on a particular topic for years,” explains Dr. Payne-Sturges, who worked previously for the EPA before coming to the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health. “We wanted to consider how we can improve these solicitations and to encourage people who are applying to respond in a way that includes partnering with communities, asking and answering questions that are relevant to people on the ground and to consider ways to better disseminate research findings to communities.”

Of the 33 RFAs that discussed community engagement in some way, the researchers found that most did not even define “community” or “community engagement” at all, though most made community engagement a mandatory component of the application.

Several outside advisory committees, such as the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (NEJAC), have been pushing the EPA to do more to encourage researchers to utilize community based participatory research methods (CBPR) as a means of addressing environmental justice concerns. Dr. Sacoby Wilson, also in the UMD School of Public Health’s  Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, serves as a member of the NEJAC.

“To address environmental injustice and environmental health disparities, I believe that community-engaged research is essential, particularly CBPR,” Dr. Wilson says.  “Without engaging communities, how can we effectively translate research to action and solutions? This study shows the inconsistences in RFAs related to community-engaged research and the lack of funding accountability. This study leads me to also ask: Has the EPA equitably funded community-engaged research compared to other types of research?  Is the research being funded through these RFAs leading to real reductions in exposure and relevant disparities?  This study also provides insight into a bigger issue of how much federal funding is going to authentic community-engaged research that leads to real impact in underserved and overburdened communities.  This issue needs to be addressed by other agencies including NIH.”

Dr. Payne Sturges suggests that one of the key areas that EPA could improve on in its RFAs is to make the application requirements for community engagement consistent with the peer review criteria. “If community engagement review criteria are not provided in the RFA, then that aspect of the proposal is not going to be rigorously evaluated as part of the peer review process,” Dr. Payne-Sturges says. She also urges the need to put together the right peer review panel.

“The solicitation might do a great job of describing community engagement,” she explains, “but you have to have the right experts on the panel who are able to appropriately evaluate the engagement piece of it.”

Their study makes several recommendations that can be broadly applied by the EPA and other research funders to address these issues and to bolster community engagement in their research programs.

Among them:

  • Include community engagement
    • Are there community concerns that may be relevant to the development or execution of the research program?
  • Determine the vision for community engagement
    • What is the ultimate goal of involving the community within the research program?
  • Define “community” and “community engagement” in the context of research.
    • What are the definitions of community, community engagement and related terms to be used in the RFA?
    • Who or what groups, populations or categories of people are and are not intended to be engaged?
  • Specify level of involvement and degree of requirement
    • Will the level of community engagement be pre-determined within the RFA or determined and justified by the applicant?
  • Timeframe and funding mechanism
    • Is the duration of grant funding reasonably aligned with the expected level and degree of community engagement?
  • Application and submission information
    • What community engagement information will be sought from applicants? (e.g., community engagement plan, data sharing plan, demonstration of qualifications and past partnerships, letters of support from community partners, etc.)
  • Peer review considerations
    • What peer review criteria will be used to assess community engagement?
    • Is there alignment of the level and degree of community engagement expected in applications with the peer review criteria?

Since funders play a critical role in shaping research, including the nature and extent of community involvement, these and other recommendations may assist funders in enhancing the relevance and rigor of research that involves community engagement.

The article, A Systematic Review of Community Engagement in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Extramural Research Solicitations: Implications for Research Funders was written by Tina Yuen, MPH, MCP, CPH, Alice N. Park, MPH, Sarena D. Seifer, MD, and Devon Payne-Sturges, DrPH and published in the American Journal of Public Health online ahead of print October 15, 2015.

Related Links

AJPH original research article

Related People
Devon C. Payne-Sturges, Sacoby Wilson