Inspiring students with the power of partnership

I recently had the welcome opportunity to speak to students at the Heidelberg Institute of Global Health’s Jubilee Symposium. The topic was climate change, but these smart young scientists didn’t need any lessons from me about the perils of climate change or its dangerous impact on global health.

I spoke to them, instead, about the power of partnership. It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. While the COVID-19 pandemic has made visible the deep inequities and damaging silos that hamper public health responses in many countries, it has also encouraged and strengthened global partnerships — some of them surprising.

In the early months of COVID-19, we saw a flurry of research papers with authors from two or more countries. The greatest number came from two unlikely allies: China and the United States. Meanwhile, scientists from around the globe developed multiple vaccines at incredible speed. And international databases have allowed us to track outbreaks in every corner of the world.

At Harvard Chan, we’ve had the opportunity to launch several new, cross-disciplinary collaborations over the past few years to leverage the power of partnership.

Early in the pandemic, we brought together researchers, technology companies, and global policymakers to collect and interpret COVID-19 transmission data. That work has expanded into a platform called CrisisReady, designed to incorporate such data into local disaster planning around the world.

We’ve also established a Global Nursing Leadership Program in partnership with the African Union, the Africa CDC, the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The goal: To train, empower and elevate the nursing and midwifery workforce worldwide.

And we recently launched a partnership with the new Vanke School of Public Health at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Our schools will share research findings in infectious diseases and work together to tackle global challenges like antimicrobial resistance and climate change. And students from both schools will be involved in field research in the U.S. and China.

Imagine what would be possible if we could scale that kind of knowledge sharing, innovating, and local capacity-building across the globe.

That’s exactly what our next generation of public health leaders must do.

To do this well requires us to seek out not only well-established international partners, but also emerging ones. To invest in places that have traditionally been ignored—or worse, places that are too often thought of as the source of the problem rather than as part of the solution.

Because in this globalized world, a handful of rich countries cannot be the only ones with the equipment, resources, and agency to sequence viruses or manufacture vaccines or make new discoveries.

The global scientific community must be exactly that—global.

That kind of sea change in how we approach public health will be up to today’s students, our next generation of leaders.

It’s up to all of you—in Boston, in Heidelberg, and around the globe—to make sure the lessons from this pandemic aren’t quickly forgotten. That your work isn’t confined to disciplines or sectors or borders. That you seek out and invest in ideas from all over the world, even in places where the conventional wisdom suggests you’re least likely to find them.

What we do—and whether we do it together—will set the course for human health for the next century.