The magazine of the UW School of Public Health

From the Dean: An Issue of Innovation

Howard Frumkin

This issue of Northwest Public Health, with its focus on innovation, could not be more timely. Every one of us has lived through almost unimaginable change in recent years: the evolution from phone booths to smartphones, the rise of Facebook and Twitter, instant access to infinite knowledge, and more.

We practice public health in a radically different world than did our teachers.

Communication and information represent only part of this radical change. Scientists have mapped the human genome. We are learning that adult disease can originate early in life and that many supposedly “non-infectious” diseases can originate with infections. The public we serve is older and more diverse than ever before. We confront a changing climate, and the limits of resources as diverse as fish, petroleum, and rare earth metals.

Some changes represent enormous opportunities, but others are ominous. Consider the erosion of civic engagement. In The True Patriot (2007), Seattle writers Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer dissect patriotism at its best—a shared moral framework built on service, stewardship, tolerance, moderation, respect, and equality of opportunity. Sadly, such values are under assault. For several decades, much of our nation’s public discourse has favored individualism over collective solutions and ideology over pragmatism. The economic crisis has fueled this trend. With neither robust public support nor robust funding, public health faces enormous challenges.

Innovation is part of the answer, but so are enduring bedrock principles. We serve the public with dedication. We focus on populations, locally and globally. We ground our actions in sound science. We emphasize underserved and vulnerable populations, and we promote fair and equitable policies. These principles bear constant reinforcement.

At the same time, we need creative and innovative approaches. Innovation can be learned, according to Roberta Ness, Dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health. Her new book, Innovation Generation (2011), describes the mental processes that give rise to innovation, such as thinking by analogy, making assumptions explicit and expanding them, and deconstructing hard questions. Innovation can be promoted through encouragement, incentives, and rewards.

When times are tough, innovation is hard—but more necessary than ever. The recently adopted strategic plan for the UW School of Public Health sets out bold steps to meet the challenges of the 21st century. It balances “strengthening our core”—reinforcing the teaching, research, and service activities that have marked the School’s success—with meeting six emerging challenges: Global Environmental Change and Human Health; Genomics and Public Health; Obesity, Food, Physical Activity, and Health; Health Policy and Health Systems; Public Health Implementation Science; and Social Determinants of Health. Each of these has a strong foundation in the School. For each, we plan ambitious growth. Throughout the Strategic Plan, we value innovation—doing what we’ve always done in new, more effective ways, and taking on new challenges.

This issue of Northwest Public Health reports on similarly ambitious, innovative efforts throughout our region—from emergency preparedness to immunization, from education to communication to clinical care. This is an inspiring portfolio of work, exemplifying the best of public health. I hope you enjoy this issue, and look forward to continued collaboration between UW School of Public Health and our valued partners as we work to advance public health.

Howard Frumkin, Dean
UW School of Public Health