Thought in a Perplexing World

How we see it.

Public health leaders share perspectives on today’s challenges and opportunities.

Public health is about creating the social, economic, political, and cultural conditions that make people healthy. Academic public health does this in three ways: We generate the knowledge that informs the political, cultural, and economic conversation; we train the next generation of students to know how to use that knowledge; and we engage.

We engage in translating our knowledge, making sure our knowledge doesn’t just sit on the shelf, and we engage in the broader political, economic, and cultural conversation.

And in more troubling times—like the ones we’re in right now—academic public health plays a more assertive role. We should continue to generate knowledge and educate the next generation of students, but we should also take the steps necessary to make sure that our work is clearly and widely accessible—make sure that the broader conversation is about awareness of what it takes to generate health, and what we are doing that might be harming health today and 10 years from now. I think that is why academic public health plays a role now more than ever.

We reached out to some of the leading deans and directors, past and present, from schools and programs of public health around the country to ask them how they believe we should advance public health in an unsettled climate. Here are their answers.

Sandro Galea

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It’s our job to be curious, practical problem solvers. We should approach issues from a nonpartisan perspective, letting science, data, and facts inform and shape discussions, but with openness and empathy.

— Barbara K. Rimer, UNC Chapel Hill

[Public health] requires multiple looks from multiple perspectives, not just microbiology and not just mathematics, but the social sciences, the political sciences, and the humanities.

— Martin Philbert, University of Michigan

We engage in translating our knowledge, making sure our knowledge doesn’t just sit on the shelf, and we engage in the broader political, economic, and cultural conversation.

— Sandro Galea, Boston University

In challenging times, the way we train our students to express what they know is right, and correct, and important for society becomes critically important.

— Donna J. Petersen, University of South Florida

You cannot split public health, environmental health, and a vital economy. Together they make us really the strongest we can be.

— Jay Maddock, Texas A&M University

If we are going to be the only developed country in the world that does not insure its population and public health people don’t speak up, who will?

— Cheryl G. Healton, New York University

The field has been built on diversity, inclusion, and the need to work together. So, the role of public health doesn’t necessarily need to be evolving; rather, we have to commit towards action.

— Hala Madanat, San Diego State University

We believe in educating the average American about the value of prevention and what kind of investments need to be made to avoid human illness.

— Sten H. Vermund, Yale University

Key to what we do in academic public health is to make sure the evidence leads to impact and changes the quality of each of our lives and the health of all of our communities.

— Jody Heymann, UCLA

As some public health advances are being challenged, we need to step up and have our voices heard by state, federal, and international policymakers.

— Joel Kaufman, University of Washington

We are a compass that points the way to make the right decisions to improve the health of everyone in a population.

— Michael J. Klag, Johns Hopkins University

We have issues that relate to people who are marginalized and disadvantaged, and it is our goal and our mission to help to ensure their health as well as the health of the greater community.

— Jean Wactawski-Wende, University at Buffalo

Public health professionals are probably better suited than most professions to deal with uncertainty. The last thing we want to do is to appear as victims. We are a solution. Let’s be that.

— Ayman El-Mohandes, City University of New York

I see one of the great opportunities as working at the local and community levels. I think that is always a key for all social issues.

— Marjorie Aelion, UMass Amherst

What matters is whether our investments are producing real change across an entire population.

— Stefano M. Bertozzi, University of California, Berkeley

The first thing public health can do in times of uncertainty is to continue to do something that public health has always done, and that is to reveal the truth about what drives population health.

— Ana V. Diez Roux, Drexel University

We need to have a truly global approach linking domestic and international issues, and find solutions together.

— Pierre Buekens, Tulane University

There is a second new public health problem, which is the role of inequity in the health of human populations.

— Anthony L. Schlaff, Tufts University

It is the unpredictability of our world that makes it so fascinating. That is what drives us in public health.

— Tomás R. Guilarte, Florida International University

Approaching the most important public health problems and improving the health of populations is inherently political.

— James W. Curran, Emory University

Public health embraces the challenge of ensuring that those without the time, or voice, or resources to advocate for their own needs will still get their needs met. We see you, and we are here for you.

— Melinda Forthofer, UNC Charlotte

We in public health can’t continue to act as if we are the only ones that understand the health problems in a community.

— F. Javier Nieto, Oregon State University

[We need] to make sure that there are policies and systems in place that allow people to meet their full health potential. Many refer to this as a “culture of health.”

— Michael P. Eriksen, Georgia State University

The public is frustrated with institutions that are very sacred in this country. Our challenge is to make sure that we address those frustrations rather than sitting around and waiting for the status quo to come about.

— Max Michael, University of Alabama at Birmingham

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