Academic Community Partnerships

Haynes, E., Beidler, C., Wittberg, D., Melonçon, L., Kopras, E., Parin, M. & Deitrick, K. (2011). Developing a bidirectional academic-community partnership for environmental health research and risk communication: The process and results leading to action. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(10), 1364-1372

Background: Marietta, Ohio, is an Appalachian-American community whose residents have long struggled with understanding their exposure to airborne manganese (Mn). Although community engagement in research is strongly endorsed by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in particular, little has been documented demonstrating how an academic–community partnership that implements the community-based participatory research (CBPR) principles can be created and mobilized for research.

Objectives: We created a bidirectional, academic–community partnership with an Appalachian-American community to a) identify the community’s thoughts and perceptions about local air quality, its effect on health, and the perception of risk communication sources and b) jointly develop and conduct environmental health research.

Methods: We formed a community advisory board (CAB), jointly conducted pilot research studies, and used the results to develop a community-driven research agenda.

Results: Persons in the community were “very concerned” to “concerned” about local air quality (91%) and perceived the air quality to have a direct impact on their health and on their children’s health (93% and 94%, respectively). The CAB identified the primary research question: “Does Mn affect the cognition and behavior of children?” Although the community members perceived research scientists as the most trusted and knowledgeable regarding risks from industrial emissions, they received very little risk information from research scientists.

Conclusions: Engaging a community in environmental health research from its onset enhanced the quality and relevance of the research investigation. The CBPR principles were a useful framework in building a strong academic–community partnership. Because of the current disconnect between communities and research scientists, academic researchers should consider working collaboratively with community-based risk communication sources.