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DLSPH Blog – Importance of academic freedom and integrity given emerging – often politically created – threats to public health

July 5/2017

The DLSPH Blog is a digital platform that will explore issues that impact public health and health systems scholars on a biweekly basis written by Interim Dean Adalsteinn Brown in collaboration with DLSPH faculty, staff and students.
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For my first blog I want to focus on academic freedom and public health advocacy. We are fortunate to work in an institution that is crystal clear about the protection of its scholars’ academic freedom and its recognition of the impact we can have as scholars. But academic freedom and this sort of support are not always the norm. Governments, corporations, and advocates regularly neglect or attack the science underlying global public health threats. The broader implications of post-truth politics for public health and health systems mean that evidence will not always have the upper-hand in policy discussions.

The controversy over climate change and its health impact clearly demonstrates the importance of academic freedom and advocacy to public health. Without academic freedom, we would not know about the challenges of climate change and it is likely that we would not see the opportunity for Canada to partner with individual U.S. States to fight climate change.

Photo by Joe Brusky via Flickr

Photo by Joe Brusky via Flickr

Academic freedom has allowed scholars to identify threats to health, to develop solutions to these recognized threats, and to advocate more broadly for health. Such advocacy — centred in science — is key to public health practice and something we expect our students to do after they graduate. The Public Health Agency of Canada identified advocacy as a core competency for public health and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada’s new CanMEDS roles emphasize the same role for physicians as “Health Advocates… with communities or patient populations to improve health.”

Academic freedom and the freedom to engage with health systems and more broadly with society gives public health scholars the ability to ensure the evidence and insights they develop make their way into decision-making processes. If public health and health services researchers do not have such freedom, they lose the voice that can both identify and find solutions to major health threats like climate change and vaccine hesitancy.

Art & Science of Immunization

Prof Natasha Crowcroft is leading a U of T working group that is exploring communication issues and human-centred interventions to address the problem of vaccine hesitancy.

The advocacy role extends well beyond the important but focused activity of knowledge translation. Public health scholars should use the evidence they develop to advocate for health and its broader determinants and this includes engaging with societal institutions to show how political and social decisions affect health and social justice.

For example, public health professionals are intimately aware of how climate change will disproportionately affect vulnerable groups — such as low-income households, older adults, and generally the Global South — and advocate for all citizens to have their voices heard.

flood waters

A Montreal resident attempts to protect her house from flood waters in May 2017. Photo by Getty Images

DLSPH is fortunate to be in a University that values this engagement, but other scholars — even Canadian scholars — may practice under leadership that discourages this engagement.  It should come as no surprise that John Oliver  in his weekly comedy show felt the need to champion vaccines in our current post-truth environment and did so by repeatedly calling attention to the evidence on vaccines and the threats that come from declining levels of immunization.

Comedian John Oliver commented on anti-vaccine sentiment

Comedian John Oliver commented on anti-vaccine sentiment

Fundamentally, public health gains its moral purpose from the way that it helps improve health and health care. Without engagement and advocacy, we risk separating ourselves from that purpose.

Although we are a new faculty, our scholars and our students have a long tradition of engaging with society to ensure that our work helps to improve health and health care. This is something that I will encourage and I look forward to working with all of you over the next year.

– Professor Adalsteinn Brown, Interim Dean, Dalla Lana School of Public Health &
Dalla Lana Chair of Public Health Policy