Alan Ducatman, interim founding dean of West Virginia's new School of Public Health, said for West Virginia to get a handle on its "deplorable" health problems, scientists can't shy away from controversial research areas.

 "You should demand of us that we address the hard questions that affect us locally," Ducatman told members of the Rotary Club of Charleston on Monday. "Science is a process. We shouldn't fear science. We can, we must improve and we shouldn't seek to explain and justify, we should seek to make things better."

 In February, West Virginia University asked the state for $5 million to create the state's first School of Public Health on its Morgantown campuses. Lawmakers set aside $1 million to support the new school, and private donors have stepped in to underwrite the proposed institution.

 West Virginia has some of the worst national statistics for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and tobacco and prescription drug abuse. WVU's Department of Community Medicine has spearheaded a number of studies looking into these problems and has piloted local initiatives to curb some of the most acute problems.

 Ducatman hopes to build off those programs in the public health school and said an impendent accredited school could help net federal dollars to study major health problems that don't have sound scientific data.

 "It's not going to be OK that West Virginia continues to trail the rest of the country in health in 30, 40, and 50 years," Ducatman said. "We need to catch up."

 WVU researchers have already ventured into controversial research territory in recent months.

 In June, Michael Hendryx, an associate professor at the university's Department of Community Medicine, authored a breakthrough study explaining the serious public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

 The report, which received international attention, found significantly higher rates of birth defects in areas with mountaintop removal mines than in non-mining regions in central Appalachia.

 In another study in July, Hendryx found increased cancer rates among Coal River residents living near mountaintop removal sites. If those rates are extrapolated for the 1.2 million central Appalachia residents living near mountaintop removal sites, the study reported, it would mean an additional 60,000 cases of cancer.

 The National Mining Association publicly attacked the conclusions of both WVU studies, saying a number of outside health factors were not properly taken into account.

 On Monday, Ducatman said the mining studies provided solid data and "they have the potential to be very valuable" to lawmakers.

 There are nine accredited colleges of public health in the region -- one in Ohio, two in Pennsylvania, two in Kentucky, two in Maryland, one in Washington, D.C., and one in North Carolina.

 Ducatman said the next step in organizing the School of Public Health is getting members of the university's Faculty Senate to approve the school's curriculum within the next two to three months.