Dean’s message: The quest for innovation

[ Winter 2012 ]

Underwriting research at a critical early stage of development can have profound consequences, both for science and for humankind

The history of public health is a history of innovation. From the germ theory of disease to genetic epidemiology, public health revolutions have always sprung from inventive ideas fueled by moral urgency.

Since its founding nearly a century ago, Harvard School of Public Health has embodied this pioneering spirit. Our world-class scientists paved the way for a polio vaccine, prevented millions of cholera deaths by promoting simple oral rehydration therapy, described both the biological mechanisms of AIDS and the epidemic’s human rights dimensions, discovered the tick vector of Lyme disease, helped set global standards for protection against environmental toxins, invented new ways of measuring the burden of disease, popularized the term “designated driver” in the United States, campaigned to eliminate harmful trans fats from food, led the charge for worldwide tobacco control, exposed the links between health and wealth, developed new approaches to improving health system performance—the list goes on and on.

The School’s drive for innovation never ceases, as this issue of the Review makes clear. Katherine Baicker’s study of a rare natural policy experiment—Oregon’s brief lottery for state government-financed health care—became an instant classic when it was published this summer. And HSPH researchers wielding cutting-edge mobile technology to reverse age-old health inequities in impoverished nations are carving out new territory for the entire field.

Those of you who support these efforts by giving to the School are also pioneers. Over the years, you have seen how underwriting research at a critical early stage of development can have profound consequences—both for science and for humankind.

And you understand that, in the end, innovation is all about human beings. New ideas and methods must empower people, whether as patients taking charge of their own health or the health of loved ones, or as public health workers seeking to save lives across populations, or as policy-makers weighing evidence to make enlightened decisions.

As a new year begins, I urge you to support the School in its public health mission and its quest to find new and better ways of bringing health and well-being to all.

Julio Frenk is the Dean of the Faculty and T & G Angelopoulos Professor of Public Health and International Development at Harvard School of Public Health