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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Maryland Study Examines EPA Strategies to Encourage “Community-Engaged Research”

“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 U.S. 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?

caught a fish
[Photo: 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 UMD’s 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).]

New research by Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges, assistant professor in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, and colleagues examined how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) incorporates or requires community engagement in research through its granting process and makes recommendations to assist the EPA and other federal funders in enhancing the relevance and rigor of research that involves community engagement. Their study, published in the American Journal of Public Health on October 15, 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.

“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,” explains Dr. Payne-Sturges, who worked previously for the EPA before coming to the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health.

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.

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:

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 Ms. Tina Yuen, Ms. Alice N. Park, Dr. Sarena D. Seifer, and Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges and published in the American Journal of Public Health online ahead of print October 15.