Public health must engage in politics. Here’s why.

Recently, I participated in a panel on the impacts of politics on public health hosted by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health. Here I share my thoughts on why we must claim and amplify our collective influence as non-partisan advocates of evidence-based practices that advance the public good.

This field has never unanimously agreed that as public health experts, we should have a voice in politics. Personally, I can say from experience, this subject has sparked recurring, spirited dialogue among epidemiologists.

That’s why I think it’s imperative to state that we can – and in my view, we must – engage with the political world to translate the insights we generate through our research into policies and programs that improve population health.

But it’s equally important to recognize that engaging with politics is not the same as being partisan. In other words, our role is not political—but we cannot afford to ignore politics. We have a responsibility to bring forward evidence-based science to support policies for the public good.

That role is especially vital because in even this era of hyper-partisanship, Americans still largely respect and trust scientists. Even after three years of bitter partisanship about COVID, nearly 80% of Americans said they have at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists to act in the best interests of the public. Less than 25% say the same about elected officials.

The impact of politics on public health has become even clearer in the past few weeks. I’m talking, of course, about the U.S. Supreme Court. In just seven days last month, the conservative majority issued decisions on gun violence, abortion, and the environment that will have an enormous impact on population health, particularly on vulnerable segments of the population. They set us back more than 50 years. It is hard not to see these as overtly political rulings.

And I firmly believe that as a field, we must mount a muscular response. We cannot sit on the sidelines. We cannot be content to simply document the effects of these decisions through peer-reviewed papers.

We must act. We must engage with local activists, NGOs—and yes, politicians—to address the devastating consequences of these rulings and to help shape policies that can mitigate the damage. We must engage across disciplines, sectors, and continents to tackle the biggest challenges of our time.

I’ve coined the acronym PPAPs—public, private, academic partnerships—to describe this kind of multifaceted response, which I see as integral to the future of global health. When we researchers and scientists team up on a global level with activists, business leaders, and practitioners, with policy makers, philanthropists, and politicians, we can form powerful coalitions. We can get things done.

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 workforce worldwide, which is vital for global health security.

Closer to home, we’re working with local community health directors and civic leaders on a bold project to improve health equity in Massachusetts. The first step is research, then recommendations – and then engagement with politicians to turn our insights into fully funded programs that will make a real difference in peoples’ lives.

In the public sphere, we must also work to clarify the consequences of politics on population health. Restricting abortion will increase maternal deaths, infant mortality, prematurity, developmental difficulties. Many more women and children will be exposed to significant traumas whose lifelong physical and mental health effects trigger intergenerational harm. This is a scientific assessment; it is also vital information we must share.

It is one of my core values that we must engage and listen to people from a wide range of perspectives. When welcoming each new student class, I routinely emphasize the importance of stepping outside our bubbles and learning from the diverse community we’re lucky to have on campus. But we do not have an obligation to air “both sides” on issues fundamental to public health, such as whether women should have bodily autonomy. We must hold tight to the science, even if politicized. We bring facts forward.

Politics affects our work every day. We can’t be passive in response. The American Medical Association recently provided a powerful example of non-partisan political engagement in action. Recently, AMA adopted a resolution, co-sponsored by the National Medical Association, calling voting rights a social determinant of health. The scientific logic is clear: Public policy deeply affects our well-being – so it’s crucial for every citizen to have a voice in shaping that policy via the ballot box.

To fight effectively for public health, as scientists, we’re going to have to get involved in politics. The stakes are too high to do anything else.