The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) has begun a new webinar series, with the first entry titled “What’s new in low-dose radiation.” The July 22 event kicked off the Gilbert W. Beebe Webinar Series—an extension of the Beebe Symposium, which was established in 2002 to honor the scientific achievements of the late Gilbert Beebe, NAS staff member and designer/implementer of epidemiologic studies of populations exposed to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the Chernobyl accident.
Paul Dickman, senior policy fellow with Argonne National Laboratory and a member of the NAS Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board (NRSB), represented the American Nuclear Society and other organizations that formed an ad hoc consortium to support low-dose radiation research. The consortium members, in addition to ANS, are the Health Physics Society, the Clean Air Task Force, and Oak Ridge Associated Universities.
The webinar also featured Amy Berrington de Gonzalez, chief of the Radiation Epidemiology Branch of the National Cancer Institute; Mary Schubauer-Berigan, senior epidemiologist and acting head of the Monographs Program at the International Agency for Research on Cancer; and R. Julian Preston, Special Government Employee (an expert) with the Radiation Protection Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The event was moderated by James Brink, NRSB vice chair, chief of radiology at the Massachusetts General Hospital, and Juan M. Taveras, professor of radiology at the Harvard Medical School. The webinar was sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management.
Brink noted the impetus for the development of the webinar: the need to maintain an open forum for discussions on radiation health effects topics during the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel and meeting restrictions have impacted face-to-face meetings. He added that the webinar series is being designed to promote discussion of ionizing and nonionizing radiation effects.
Dickman’s presentation was titled “Consortium Consensus on Low-Dose Radiation Research Program Enactment.” He opened by stressing that the consortium’s organization members have a longstanding interest in advancing the science of low-dose radiation and the need for appropriate risk communication about radiation.
Dickman noted that the 2019 Beebe Symposium was “a catalyst for several things, including bringing our consortium together and, as importantly, Congressional budget direction to the Department of Energy’s Office of Science to restart the low-dose radiation program with no less than $5 million in fiscal year 2020.”
The question, however, was what the program should look like if it were to be restarted. Prior to the date of the webinar, representatives of the consortium’s organizations had gathered with the goal of meeting with the DOE to provide stakeholder views of what was needed in reestablishing the low-dose program.
“We developed some key messages and points, and then COVID-19 hit,” Dickman said, indicating how the pandemic stalled momentum. However, things picked back up recently when the consortium’s members had a virtual meeting with the DOE’s Office of Science to present its message and recommendations for the next steps.
Dickman explained that many of the consortium’s key messages were takeaways from last year’s Beebe Symposium. The first message is, “Let’s not recreate the old program,” he said. “We need to take a more strategic and integrated approach, which should be designed to address key questions. In developing a strategic plan, we need to consider stakeholder input to identify research priorities.”
A second takeaway is the need to do research in risk communication—to understand how to communicate science and risks.
Dickman said that a program is needed that would produce the science necessary for a radiation-related policy decision. “Basically, we see the science driving the policy and communication, but they must operate synergistically to be effective,” he said.
Regarding low-dose radiation research specifically, the consortium’s message included the following:
Key research must address biological mechanisms by which ionizing radiation produces cancer and non-cancer health outcomes and the integration of mechanistic biological insights with epidemiological data.
The research should include the impact of low-dose radiation as well as total low doses; the study of extremely low dose rates and doses, within existing background levels; and variations in health outcomes within populations, reflecting differing genetic sensitivity.
Science should promote and expand interdisciplinary training and integrated cross-professional research programs devoted to understanding and quantifying radiation health effects at low doses.
Regarding the communication factor, “We do the science to better understand the risks and benefits, but we also need to understand how to better communicate,” Dickman said. It is not just risk communication, but also an understanding how radiation is perceived and what is needed to be done to be able to present factual information. “We need to address both risk communication and crisis communication,” he added.
How do the parts come together? “The regulated community needs harmonization of radiation standards and alignment of regulatory approaches, both domestic and international,” Dickman said.
Dickman added that regulatory standardization will have an impact on a host of programs and industries, from medicine to environmental remediation. “Ultimately, what we want is a program that provides policy makers with risk-informed decision processes based on science,” he said.
What comes next? Dickman expressed hope that the DOE would consider the recommendations put forth by the consortium. He added that it is important for a reestablished DOE low-dose program to have a DOE program manager who would champion the cause. It is also recommended that the NAS serve as a convener working with organizations such the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) and others to provide some strategic direction.
In addition, the consortium recommends ensuring that the majority of program funding is competitively awarded; holding to a rigorous peer-review process; and staying true to the authorizing language, “to enhance the scientific knowledge of, and reduce uncertainties with, the effects of exposure to low-dose radiation to inform improved risk-management methods,” he said.
In closing, Dickman said that the day before the webinar the House Science Committee released its draft Office of Science Reauthorization Act, which had direction on establishing the DOE’s low-dose program. The draft bill proposed a program that would ramp up to $40 million by fiscal year 2024.
Berrington de Gonzalez and Schubauer-Berigan presented on the topic of “The JNCI Monograph on Epidemiological Studies of Low Dose Radiation and Cancer Risk.” (JNCI is the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.)
Pearson’s talk was on “The NCRP Report on Approaches for Integrating Radiation Biology and Epidemiology for Enhancing Low Dose Risk Assessment.”
The second Beebe Webinar, on September 16: “Safety and Efficacy of UVC to Fight COVID-19.”
The Beebe webinars are available at nationalacademies.org.