Solving ‘Big Problems’ In Public Health

The epigraph of Forster’s “Howard’s End,” “Only connect…” perhaps best reflects my thoughts about the opportunity that a possible move to Allston holds for the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and for the University at large. With its breadth of disciplines and mission both to generate new knowledge and apply it to improve the health of populations here and around the world, the School has enormous potential to make significant contributions to public health and to this University.

The School of Public Health is unusual in that it is one of the most academically diverse of the Harvard graduate faculties—a diversity that grants it a unique place in the fabric of Harvard academia. Roughly one third of our faculty is engaged in population health sciences, encompassing epidemiology and biostatistics applied to an analysis of risks for disease in populations. Our faculty in the Division of Biological Sciences are engaged in understanding mechanisms of disease through laboratory-based research that emphasizes problems of resource-poor people and countries, while another important segment of our faculty focuses on social and behavioral, non-medical determinants of health, and domestic and international health economics and policy. Overlaid on academic departments, our Division of Public Health Practice builds on our expertise to make a difference in the real world, giving students practical experience in the community, training public health leaders in preparedness for disasters and terrorism, and combating the major preventable causes of death, disease, and smoking, both here and abroad.

Underlying science planning for Allston is a belief that solutions to the “big problems” require multidisciplinary approaches and the collaboration of people from many disciplines, schools, and hospitals. While new for the University at large, this is not a new model for us. Our faculty’s expertise ranges from molecular genetics to mathematical modeling, from measuring environmental exposures to child development, from health and third world economic development to U.S. health care reform. That this remarkable diversity of backgrounds and expertise has been brought to bear on multidisciplinary approaches to complex problems relating to health within a single faculty is what I believe makes HSPH such a special and rewarding place for its faculty and students.

While the Allston planning process has been moving forward at remarkably high speed, there remain uncertainties, and we all recognize that final decisions on realizing the visions for Allston will be the responsibility of our new University leadership.

Nonetheless, we at HSPH share the vision of this multidisciplinary approach and would look forward to many points of linkage across the University: to the Medical School and hospitals on clinical trials and epidemiologic study and infectious diseases; to the FAS in collaborations in statistics, economics, government, and regional studies; with the Kennedy and Business schools in global health; to the School of Education on childhood development and health; and with the Law School in our joint Public Health Law program.

It would be wonderful for us if there were programs in Allston involving the human genome and cutting-edge technology, as well as links to the important research activities of the Harvard hospitals. But perhaps most exciting, the opportunity to teach and inspire Harvard undergraduates to think about problems of public health nationally and globally would be an exciting extension of our faculty’s commitment to education at all levels and would open new worlds to the brightest young people on the planet.

Our challenge is to realize the full potential of these opportunities, to bring together a geographically dispersed faculty in one location to serve the future institutional needs of the School and the educational needs of its students. The Allston Master Plan filed with the City of Boston includes the Harvard School of Public Health as one of the professional schools to be located in Allston along with the Graduate School of Education. At HSPH, faculty committees are working hard on developing the best strategy for the School to take advantage of such a move to Allston, while retaining our longstanding relationships with the hospitals in Longwood

We can envision new interfaculty initiatives both for the School and the University that relocation to Allston would facilitate, including a number of interdisciplinary and interfaculty centers of intellectual activity. We can imagine a center for health policy that draws together the unique expertise at Harvard of domestic and global health policy and economics; and a center for quantitative health sciences linking the social sciences, statistics, and computer science expertise with biostatistics, epidemiology, and social determinants of disease. One can see collaborative centers for global infectious diseases and vaccines or for advancing study of genes and environment.

To the question, why would it be appropriate for the School of Public Health to occupy a key place in Allston, I would argue that its unique interdisciplinary character and mission make it an ideal “connector.” But perhaps the case was best summarized by former University President Lawrence H. Summers,:“I have asked the community to explore and think about the relocation of the public health school and many of its primary activities to the Allston campus, where it will occupy a role at the center of the University. I have suggested that as an important commitment of the University because I am convinced that if we think about what it is that is really important in terms of what the University is going to do in the years ahead, public health is very much at center of those things.”

Barry R. Bloom is dean of the Harvard School of Public Health.