"Neurobiology and the behavioral and social sciences have given us an unprecedented understanding of the important inter-relations among brain development, early life experiences, and the emergence of human competence," says Shonkoff. "But there is a huge gap between what we know about raising healthy children--and consequently, a sustainable society--and what we do in terms of policy and practice."
In his quest to close that gap and put research into practice, in July, Shonkoff, the former dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, brought his expertise to Harvard. Through a new, joint faculty appointment at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), Shonkoff aims to build synergy among faculty working in early childhood development, the biomedical sciences, and public health policy. At HSPH, he is professor of child health and development within the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health.
From Neurons to Neighborhoods led to the creation of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, made up of neuroscientists, economists, psychologists, pediatricians, and communication researchers. With Shonkoff as chair, its members are working to translate science for policy makers and civic leaders to build new leadership for informed policy in both the public and private sectors. At Harvard, the council's work will fall under a new, University-wide center that will focus on children's issues.
"The basic assumption behind the center is that scientific knowledge does not speak for itself," explains Shonkoff. "We in the academy tend to think that if we publish good work in peer-reviewed journals, our job is done. But the science may not speak to the needs of policy makers, or it may speak to them in a foreign language."
"When it comes to investment in early childhood development and education,
Shonkoff plans to cultivate an interdisciplinary research agenda--one that combines fundamental investigations of the biological mechanisms underlying human health and development with rigorous studies of societal influences that foster or undermine it. Initially the center will look particularly at how early life stresses associated with poverty, maltreatment, and racism lead to health and learning disparities.
State Representative Ruth Kagi, a board member of "Thrive by Five," recalls Shonkoff's address last year to the National Council of State Legislatures on the importance of early childhood development.
"There were conservative legislators at the conference who have opposed early learning legislation for years. One key legislator changed her entire view of early learning and the importance of the legislature acting," remembers Kagi. "Jack put all the pieces together--how early brain formation becomes the foundation for the rest of the learning years; the importance of relationships between adults and children; the terrible impact of abuse and neglect on brain development; and how all these factors affect success in school."
"Jack is invaluable to policy makers," Kagi says. "He can explain the research and how to apply it."
Christina Roache is the editor of Harvard Public Health NOW, the biweekly newsletter of HSPH, available online at www.hsph.harvard.edu/now.
Photo: Kent Dayton-HSPH
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