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National Children’s Study scales up

NCS.crLogo.JPGWhile many agencies and programmes in the US government are watching their backs as the budget cutters sharpen their knives, the once-beleaguered National Children’s Study is entering an era of plenty.

The ambitious and controversial study funded and led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that it is opening 30 new study locations that run the geographic and demographic gamut, from Benton County, Arkansas to Honolulu County, Hawaii. At these locations, pregnant women, and women likely to become pregnant, will be asked to make a 21-year-plus commitment: the long-term goal of the study, which will cost at least $3 billion over the next couple of decades, is to document environmental impacts on the health of more than 100,000 children beginning before birth and ending at age 21.

The 30 new locations follow the opening last year of the study’s seven “vanguard centres“; Nature wrote about one of them, and the labour pains of the incipient study, here.

The George W. Bush White House long tried to cancel funding for the study, calling it unaffordable, but members of Congress, many of whom could end up with one of 105 planned study locations in their districts, went to bat for the study and repeatedly reinserted the money in the NIH budget.

That supportive relationship grew testy last summer, after senators learned that cost estimates for the study could be as much as twice what they had been told by NIH. Declaring a “serious breach of trust,” they threatened to de-fund the study, but ended up grudgingly dishing up $193.8 million for it in 2010.

By this summer – one year after the summary removals of study chief Peter Scheidt and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development director Duane Alexander — the senators were much happier: “The Committee appreciates the improvements to the management and oversight of this study that have occurred in the past year,” the Senate’s NIH-funding committee wrote in a report last month, noting that their spending bill would provide $194.4 million for the study in 2011 (For a table of the study’s funding history, see here.)

The study will likely proceed on firmer footing, too, after the appointment in July of Alan Guttmacher as director of the child health institute, the lead agency for the children’s study. (The others include the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) In the press relase announcing the 30 new locations, Guttmacher called the study “an investment in the future of America’s children.”

A spokesman for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development said there is no information on when the children’s study itself will receive a permanent director. Steven Hirschfeld, an MD/PhD, has been acting director since Scheidt’s removal.


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