Harvard Public Health Review Winter 2007
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A Vision for HSPH in Allston
Allston map

The epigraph of E.M. Forster’s Howards 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 great mission—to generate new knowledge and to apply it to improve the health of populations in this country and around the world—the School has enormous potential to serve as a connector among biological, population health, and social and policy sciences across this great University.

The School of Public Health is one of the most academically diverse of all the Harvard graduate faculties. In contrast to faculties structured around disciplines, professions, skills, or sectors (all of which are emphasized at our School), HSPH ultimately is organized around problems affecting the public’s health. Our vision has been to encompass a continuum of scientific disciplines and programs, from fundamental science to application locally and globally. While creating disciplinary excellence, we have long emphasized multidisciplinary and interdepartmental approaches to training leaders and attacking major health threats to populations worldwide, from obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease to HIV/AIDS and emerging infectious and environmental threats.

A Model of Collaboration
Roughly one-third of our faculty is engaged in population health sciences, which encompass predominantly epidemiology and biostatistics relating to the quantitative analysis of risks for disease and outcomes of interventions. Faculty members in the Division of Biological Sciences are engaged in understanding mechanisms of disease through laboratory-based research that particularly emphasizes problems facing resource-poor people and countries. Other important segments of our faculty focus on social and behavioral, nonmedical determinants of health, as well as on domestic and international health economics and policy. Overlaying academic departments is the Division of Public Health Practice, which enables our expertise to make a difference in the real world. By giving students practical experience in the community, this division trains public health leaders to work with public health professionals and government officials, to prepare for disasters, humanitarian crises, and terrorism, and to combat the major preventable causes of death and disease, especially smoking, both here and abroad.

Underlying science planning for Allston is a belief that efforts to find solutions to the “big problems” will require collaboration among people from many disciplines, schools, and Harvard-affiliated hospitals. While perhaps novel 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 the health and economic advancement of developing-world countries 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 is what makes HSPH such a special and rewarding place for faculty and students.

While the Allston planning process is moving forward, many uncertainties remain. We all recognize that final decisions on whether HSPH will have a key role in Allston will be the responsibility of our new University leadership and the Harvard Corporation. In this context, it is gratifying that, as Harvard University President and Lincoln Professor of History Drew Faust has made clear, Allston planning is a major priority for her administration.

Opportunities and Challenges
The possibility of moving HSPH to Allston offers enormous opportunities, and also many challenges. Allston would allow for many more points of linkage across the University. With the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, we could envision collaborations with the biological sciences, statistics, economics, government, and regional studies. With the Kennedy and Business schools, areas of common interest include global health and health and development policy. With the School of Education, we have already initiated work in childhood development and health. And with the Law School, we hope to extend our joint Public Health Law degree program. Our greatest challenge will be to maintain and strengthen our ties with Harvard Medical School and Harvard’s distinguished teaching hospitals, the Channing Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Longstanding collaborations there have become vital to our research and teaching in epidemiology and biostatistics, and in the social determinants of health.

It would be wonderful for us if there were new programs in Allston involving the human genome, bioengineering, and other cutting-edge science. But perhaps the most exciting would be the opportunity to teach and inspire Harvard undergraduates to think about problems of public health nationally and globally. To engage with these students would be an exciting extension of our faculty’s commitment to education at all levels; in turn, our faculty could open new worlds to some of the brightest young people on the planet.

Allston offers HSPH the unique opportunity to bring together a geographically dispersed faculty working in multiple, scattered facilities. Together we could begin to create a real campus, in a real community in one centralized location, to serve both the future institutional needs of the School and the educational needs of its students. The Allston Master Plan recently 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 the center of the Allston plan. At HSPH, faculty committees are working hard on developing the best strategy for the School to take advantage of a move to Allston, while also retaining our longstanding relationships with the hospitals in Boston’s Longwood Medical Area.

New Connections
We can envision new interfaculty initiatives both for the School and the University that our relocation to Allston would facilitate. I would like to imagine, for example, a center for health policy that draws together the extraordinary but dispersed expertise at Harvard in domestic and global health policy and economics. Equally exciting would be a center for quantitative health sciences that links the social sciences, statistics, and computer science expertise with biostatistics, informatics, epidemiology, and research on social determinants of disease. I can conceive, moreover, of interdisciplinary collaborative centers for global infectious diseases and vaccines, and for advancing the study of genes and environment. Giving physical reality to each of these ideas would provide our students and fellows with unprecedented opportunities for intellectual interaction with their counterparts from around the University.

To the question, “Why would it be appropriate for the School of Public Health to occupy a key place in Allston?” the simple answer is that its unique interdisciplinary character and mission make it an ideal “connector.” I would be hard-pressed to improve upon the case made by former University President Larry 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 the center of those things.”

Barry R. Bloom

Dean Barry R. Bloom
Dean of the Faculty, HSPH
Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson II Professor of Public Health

Adapted with permission from an essay originally published in the June 6, 2007, issue of the Harvard Crimson

Photograph, Rick Friedman

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