Harvard Public Health Review
Maintaining MomentumIt took 50 years of research to get the dangers into print
The recent announcement that Harvard University President Larry Summers will be stepping down in June raises many questions in people's minds. One of those is certain to be, "How will this affect plans for the Harvard School of Public Health?"
While it is impossible to predict what new ideas and vision the next president might bring to Harvard, of this I am sure: The major themes that emerged during President Summers' tenure--the emphasis on science and technology, globalization, public service, support for undergraduate and graduate education, and the imperatives of promoting cross-campus collaboration and expanding the campus into Allston--will remain salient. Remarkably, each one of these University-wide priorities is supportive of HSPH's mission.
Expanding the sciences If the physical and computer sciences were a major force in the intellectual and economic life of the 20th century, life sciences are almost certain to dominate the 21st. To maintain its preeminence, Harvard University must continue to enhance its capacities for training and research in the sciences. As articles in the lay press as well as academic journals have made clear, this country's leadership in science and technology is being challenged around the globe.
While U.S. laboratories continue to innovate and to export technology, the National Science Foundation reports that the United States now ranks 32nd among 90 countries worldwide in the percentage of 24-year-olds with science and engineering degrees. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in Singapore 67 percent of all undergraduates receive their degrees in natural science or engineering. In China, the figure is 50 percent and in France, 47 percent. In the United States, the corresponding figure is 15 percent. A recent study released by the NAS reported that American high-school seniors performed below the international average for 21 countries on a test of general knowledge in math and science. Harvard University and HSPH must move aggressively to help reverse these troubling trends by providing the leadership the country needs.
Although the U.S. pours more money into research and development than any other country, the amount spent on science and technology as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product has declined significantly since its peak in 1965. While this trend appears to have begun to reverse itself in the last five years, much of the recent spending increases have gone toward short-term defense and homeland security initiatives. Meanwhile, funding for biomedical research for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) declined by 0.1 percent in 2006--the first drop in 36 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) budget has similarly been cut, ironically at a time when we are threatened by avian flu and terrorism. Six countries, including Iceland and South Korea, devote a larger percentage of their economy to science than does the United States. The constitution of a high-level Harvard-wide faculty committee to plan for development of the sciences across the University, with a focus on building connections between faculty members and campuses, reflects an abiding commitment of Harvard's Corporation, administration, and faculties to strengthening the sciences.
Globalization The globalization of commerce, knowledge, and ideas, the diminution of boundaries brought about by advanced travel and communications technologies, and the rising economic development of countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa make it essential that the University and the School provide a global education to students and conduct scholarship and research throughout the world, not just in the ivory tower. With commitments from President Summers and friends of the University to make it possible, over half of Harvard undergraduates are now choosing to pursue a significant international experience. At HSPH, faculty members now conduct research in as many as 45 countries, while our School community is enriched by students from nearly 60 nations.
Together we are learning how globalization can yield improvements in the world economy and the human condition by improving health and living standards worldwide. Equally important, we are obliged to understand better how certain risks--from culture clashes and wars to pandemics--can be minimized. As the planet shrinks, we must forge alliances or risk greater environmental degradation, economic and political instability, and a widening of disparities in health. Overwhelmingly, it remains essential for us to understand increasingly complex social and economic trends, and to develop strategies to lessen the disparities within and between countries that ultimately threaten peace and prosperity.
Commitment to public service The University's efforts to encourage students to consider careers in public service and research will, I hope, continue. President Summers created a series of initiatives for Harvard's graduate and professional schools that support top students whose particular career choices hold little promise of financial reward, but provide service to the country. The Presidential Scholars Program, established in 2003 with University resources, has funded over 220 such students pursuing academic and public service careers at HSPH and other schools at the University. The Zuckerman Fellows Program, created in 2004, and the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Fellowships in Social Entrepreneurship, established in 2005, support outstanding students who are pursuing work in social entrepreneurship and careers in the public sector. HSPH students have competed well for these prized fellowships, which have made it possible for a number of them to come to the School who, for financial reasons, would not otherwise have been able to do so. I am confident that visionary donors will continue to help the University and HSPH prepare tomorrow's leaders for public service.
Pan-Harvard initiatives In the past few years, faculties from all schools have been encouraged to work more closely together to make Harvard truly one University. This trend, too, will continue. The health challenges addressed by HSPH are enormous, including infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria; chronic diseases, notably obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer; environmental threats to our water, air, and soil; and social threats to health, including violence, poverty, and racial disparities. Of the 6.2 billion people in the world, one billion live healthy and prosperous lives. Our challenge is to find ways to improve the health of the other 5.2 billion people in meaningful ways. One way to do so is to bring together the broad expertise of faculty from across this great University to tackle these daunting problems.
We remain committed to training our students to deal with present, anticipated, and unanticipated problems, and to become leaders in the worlds of public health and medicine. Despite declining NIH and CDC budgets, the ability of HSPH and University faculty to compete successfully for federal grants remains high. Nevertheless, we must increasingly count on the generosity of our many donors to enable us to recruit the best students and best possible faculty to carry out our mission. The decision to allow alumni of Harvard College and the business and law schools to earn class credit for gifts to public service schools has helped distribute alumni support more evenly across the University and made a great difference to HSPH. We are enormously grateful for gifts to HSPH that have been granted class crediting since fiscal year 2003. As of March 31, 2006, these contributions totaled $12.3 million.
Much of Harvard's greatness comes from its ability to evolve as the world changes. We must continue to draw forth the energy of each successive generation of students and faculty in new and creative ways. In the coming months, we will engage with colleagues across the University in continuing to plan for a state-of-the-art science campus in Allston and to consider carefully our proposed move there, along with the School of Education. As the University enters the next chapter in its history, we look forward to working with Interim President Derek Bok and our next president on these and other exciting agendas. We are confident that Harvard University and the Harvard School of Public Health will build on the strong foundation of past successes. It is more critical for us than ever to maintain our momentum towards an even more exciting future. The good advice and generous support of our alumni and friends will help to propel us forward.
Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson II Professor of Public Health
Harvard School of Public Health
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Copyright, 2006, President and Fellows of Harvard College