Harvard To Study Global Health

Aiming to put Harvard at the forefront of efforts to alleviate developing countries’ devastating burden of disease, administrators and professors are planning a massive University-wide global health initiative.

With powerful backing from University President Lawrence H. Summers, Provost Steven E. Hyman and Dean of the School for Public Health (SPH) Barry R. Bloom, many say this project will be a top University priority over the coming years.

“Ideally this will emerge as one of the major aims of the University,” Hyman said.

Even before he took office last July, Summers emphasized Harvard’s potential to take a national leadership role in solving global health crises.

“He spoke with an intensity and depth that was staggering about global health needs,” Bloom said. “He knows his stuff.”

Although Hyman said the issue was “months from coalescing,” many already envision an initiative consisting of new graduate programs, curricular opportunities for undergraduates abroad and increased support for Faculty research.

Before administrators are ready to present a detailed program to major donors this spring, many agree that they must hammer out one of the most important aspects of the initiative—its potential to educate and train graduate and undergraduate students.

“We are already enormously engaged…but we are not a consulting company. For every pragmatic aspect of public health, we [should] have an educational component,” Bloom said.

He said the potential for focusing on education distinguishes this proposal from a lot of the research already underway throughout the University.

“The aim is to create a new leader in global health with expertise in one area and [ability] in everything else,” Bloom said.

Hyman and his colleagues agree that in waging the war against disease globally, scientific expertise is useless globally, scientific expertise is useless without working knowledge of health care systems, economics, government and human rights.

He said that the interdisciplinary nature of the of the initiative mandates input from myriad Harvard faculties, such as the SPH, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Harvard Medical School and the Kennedy School of Government.

“There is a recognition that problems cannot be addressed through individual disciplinary approaches,” he said.

But while planners hope to capitalize on the resources of Harvard’s many faculties, some say that the University’s decentralized nature will present a major hurdle to the initiative’s progress.

A former professor at both the FAS biology department and SPH, Joel E. Cohen ’65 said that Harvard’s laissez-faire attitude towards its graduate schools has in the past stood in the way of concerted University-wide efforts.

“[Harvard’s] theory of ‘each tub on its own bottom’ has made it greatly difficult for people to talk to one another and work together,” he said.