Changing the stereotype of academia

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks about action and impact.

The spark for this musing was the news that CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has launched an ambitious drive to remake the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into a more nimble, transparent, and action-oriented agency. I applaud that initiative.

But I was also struck that in describing the failings of today’s CDC, many reporters described its culture as “too academic”—meaning too slow, too bureaucratic, too focused on preparing data for publication rather than applying that data to get ahead of the COVID pandemic.

I can’t be alone in wincing to see “academic” as a synonym for impotent.

As the dean of a school of public health, I’m committed to changing that image of academia. Quite simply, the world needs more from us.

Don’t get me wrong: Curiosity-driven and goal-oriented research are still core functions of the Harvard Chan School, and all public health schools. We must continue to generate new knowledge and publish that knowledge in academic journals. That’s how science advances.

But we must also make clear that knowledge generation is only one part of our mission. Across Harvard Chan School, we are finding new ways to effectively communicate our insights to policy makers, practitioners, and the public at large. We are actively translating ideas into programs, policies, and business ventures that make a real difference in the lives of millions. And of course, we are training the next generation to build upon our discoveries and push them further than we can now imagine.

In other words, we are not just a premier research school, though we are certainly—proudly—that. We are an action school. An impact-driven school. As a community, we change lives, not just here and there, but every day, all around the world, as we work toward our shared vision of health, dignity, and justice for every human being. This isn’t aspirational; it’s who we are, at our very core. I know my colleagues at other public health schools across the country and around the world are equally committed to making a difference on the ground.

We must get better at telling that story.

We must also recommit as individuals and as a community to this ethos of impact. The way academia is traditionally organized is incompatible with the work we’re called to do in public health; tackling the biggest challenges of our age demands collaboration across disciplines, across sectors, and across continents. We must go out of our way to make room for those collaborations. We must reward the quiet and often unseen work of building trust, building capacity, and building coalitions. We must value practitioners as highly as scholars.

And we must nurture a culture of entrepreneurship. That isn’t always seen as compatible with the values of public health, but it should be. We’re all here to make a difference, whether that’s with a study or a startup.

So, let’s champion purposeful action in all its forms. The world needs the public health academy to be so much more than “academic.”