Focused on Impact

Focused on Impact

Barbara K. Rimer believes governments need people with a public health perspective—and she's willing to set an example.

As dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina—and as a graduate of both U-M SPH and Johns Hopkins—Barbara K. Rimer, M.P.H. '73, knows a thing or two about schools of public health. She also knows her way around government agencies. Rimer is a past chair of the National Cancer Advisory Board (at the National Cancer Institute) and former director of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the NCI. Last year, she accepted President Obama's invitation to chair the President's Cancer Panel, a three-member group charged with monitoring activities of the National Cancer Program and reporting directly to the President on barriers to program implementation. Rimer spoke to Findings over the summer:

What role do schools of public health play in helping to shape national health policy?

Schools of public health play a central role. When I was first at the National Institutes of Health [as a program director for the National Cancer Institute] in the 1970s, schools of public health weren't major players. By the time I returned to Washington in 1997 [as director of the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, NCI], schools of public health were serious leaders with roles across the research spectrum and across numerous disciplines. Our faculty members have provided much of the impetus for translational research and what we now refer to as dissemination and implementation research.

What changed?

Researchers in schools of public health were getting a larger share of grants, and, partly because of that, schools were becoming more formidable. The Association of Schools of Public Health plays an important role by reaching out to Congress, the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other organizations.

What do schools need to do to stay at the center of the action?

We must demonstrate that we can operate as quickly and efficiently as the private sector. We also must work really hard to show that we're focused on impact—that we understand the need to deliver quickly and to be nimble. And we need a focused set of priorities and messages that we repeat and illustrate with specific examples.

You're both a scientist and a dean—surely you've got enough on your plate without agreeing to chair the President's Cancer Panel for the next three years. What made you say yes?

I thought if I didn't do it, there was a good chance that a public health person wouldn't get the job. I really believe we owe something to society. By spending some part of our careers in a policy-relevant environment, faculty and graduates of schools of public health can have a tremendous impact on what science is studied, what questions are asked, and what policies are created and implemented. My role now is more as a research facilitator than an active researcher; the PCP chair role complements that.

What are the panel's top priorities?

The first is HPV vaccination. We've got an opportunity to reduce deaths from cervical and other HPV-related cancers, and to develop policies that can be applied ultimately to other cancer prevention vaccines. After that, we probably will focus on changing the communications paradigm to bring about much more effective cancer communications, so that people understand risk and recognize what's important and what's not. We've said we'll only do reports if actionable recommendations can come from them.