RWJF Health & Society Scholars Program


NOTE: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced in February 2014 that it has decided to realign its work and resources for the development of new health-focused leadership programs.  As part of implementing its new vision, the Foundation has made the difficult decision to “sunset” ten of its Human Capital programs, including the RWJF Health & Society Scholars program. The cohort that began in fall 2014 will be the final cohort.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars (RWJF HSS) Program at Harvard University is a unique interdisciplinary initiative that integrates activities from four schools, each with a national reputation for academic excellence:  The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Kennedy School, the Harvard Medical School, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Based on a foundation of four core disciplines – social epidemiology, public policy, history of science, and neuroscience – our program brings together some of the world’s most renowned academics in those fields.

The two-year program is structured to provide each scholar with the following competencies:

  • Knowledge of theories, research and analytical tools that integrate environmental, behavioral and biological conditions to address the determinants of population health.
  • Collaborative competence, by which we mean the ability to utilize and apply shared language, methods and techniques to conduct transdisciplinary research. This competence is necessarily grounded in a historical perspective on how scientists and policymakers have conceptualized causation and determinants of health over time.
  • Ability to plan effective interventions to improve population health, ranging from public policy approaches to community-based interventions.
  • Understanding of life course approaches to population health research.

Scholars who engage in serious interdisciplinary research are often “at risk” in their own disciplines. We have extensive experience in mentoring investigators in population sciences which, almost by their very nature, between departments and disciplines in many settings. Sociologists, economists, and epidemiologists often leave the safe harbor of their field when engaging in the program’s activities. Through the HSS program, we mentor fellows to engage in population research without losing disciplinary expertise in their home fields, by matching them to senior faculty in their “home” disciplines as well as in new ones. It is expected that Scholars meet with their mentors on a regular basis.

Research Method
The research methods used by the HSS Scholars at Harvard span the entire spectrum of approaches used in the field of population health – from qualitative ethnography, to econometric analyses of large datasets, to experimental paradigms within controlled laboratory settings, techniques in molecular biology (gene expression arrays, epigenetic tags), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of cortical brain areas.

We emphasize three objectives in our approach to methodological training:

1) The Principle of Arbitrage

All major scientific breakthroughs involve some form of intellectual “arbitrage.”  The term – borrowed from economics — refers to the simultaneous buying/selling of the same commodities in different markets to profit from unequal prices & hss-13-2_roberto_beckfieldunequal information. To give a mercantile example, the successful arbitrageur is a trader who knows that pork bellies are selling for $1 a pound in Chicago and for $1.50 in New York and so he buys them in Chicago and sells them in New York. Transported to the realm of population health research, this means that we strive to match each Scholar with at least two mentors – one from their “home” discipline, and a second from a “stretch” discipline who will help them to achieve the consilience of theories and methods across different disciplines, which is the hallmark of our training philosophy.  To give a concrete example from a recent cohort, when a Scholar trained in epidemiology/public health (Summer Hawkins) was matched to an economist from the Harvard Kennedy School (Amitabh Chandra), she learned to arbitrage the techniques of econometrics (e.g. difference-in-difference estimation, instrumental variables analysis) to interrogate her data. The result was a novel and hybrid type of research that brings new insight to old questions.

2) Causality

The second major emphasis in our training is our focus on exploring different methods to identify causality in population health. Different disciplines have approached the problem of causal inference from a variety of angles.  Our program at Harvard encourages Scholars to explore this issue from the broadest repertoire of alternatives, ranging from historical analysis (e.g. represented by the work of faculty like Nancy Krieger), to grounded ethnography, to epidemiological canons of causality (e.g. Bradford Hill criteria), to experimental paradigms and econometric techniques of identification.  We are in the midst of a “great convergence” in ideas of causality across disciplines spanning from statistics, artificial intelligence, public health, and the social sciences.

3) Mechanisms

The third major area of methodological focus at the Harvard site is on understanding the biological mechanisms for how social factors become embodied in physiology and pathology. Our Scholars have engaged in cutting-edge methodology from the frontiers of mechanistic science, from studying brain function and morphology under MRI scanners, to manipulating stress in the laboratory to assess cardiovascular and HPA-axis reactivity, to observing gene expression profiles in biological samples.

The most successful cohorts are the ones where the Scholars are present and accessible to their colleagues. As such, it is expected that Scholars be at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies (HCPDS), where the program resides, a good part of the time. They are also expected to attend all HSS seminars (bi-weekly) as well as participate in all “off-week” meetings (with the co-directors) which take place also bi-weekly. It is mandatory for Scholars to participate in the annual HSS site review, as well as the Annual Meeting in the spring.

Scholars at our site are provided with timely access to data sources, laboratory facilities, and other resources as needed. The HCPDS is home to a population science research platform. Studies are tightly harmonized so that critical comparisons across studies (or countries) can lead to important insights. The HCPDS also houses highly sensitive data that need to be enclaved (social security and medicare data, for instance). Data managers and analysts are on staff and available to aid HSS Scholars in their research efforts. Scholars have access to the Research Computing Environment (HMDC-RCE), maintained by the Harvard-MIT Data Center, that provides a full-featured user environment with a wide range of research tools and a secure virtual network computing (VNC) connection. This ensures users can work effectively, whether on site or elsewhere.  Several powerful computing clusters are available to users for computationally intensive analyses.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health also maintains a psychophysiology laboratory run by Prof. Laura Kubzansky (HSS associate site director here at Harvard).

As employees, scholars have access to all of Harvard vast resources, including its library system that encompasses more than 80 libraries and is at the leading edge of new information technology. The Francis A. Countway Library is located on the Medical Area Campus and combines the resources of the Harvard Medical School Library and the Boston Medical Library. Among libraries serving medical and health-related schools, it is the largest of its kind in the United States.

HSS scholars are also encouraged to attend courses, seminars and programs at affiliated Harvard schools and centers. Examples include: the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, which holds regular conferences and seminars allowing scholars in the social sciences to gather for research seminars in core methods related to causal inference, innovations in health assessment and general issues relate to demographic and population health issues; and The Center for Geographic Analysis offers technical training workshops to introduce GIS concepts and teach the basics on how to use GIS software. In addition, we encourage attendance at: The Malcolm Wiener Center Inequality & Social Policy seminar series at the Harvard Kennedy School; Department of Sociology Colloquium SeriesHarvard Initiative for Global Health seminars and conferences; the Harvard Medical School Neurobiology seminar series; and the RWJF Scholars in Health Policy at Harvard seminar series.

To learn more about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program, visit: