From the Dean: Growing Our Ideas

From the Dean: Growing our Ideas

I get lots and lots of ideas. And when one of those ideas is good, I bear the responsibility of nurturing it and allowing it to grow in collaboration and partnership with all sorts of people - some of whom don't think like me and frequently don't even speak the same language, literally or professionally, as I do. Invariably, the idea ends up better than it would have if I had pursued it alone.

My experience is far from unique. Ideas drive what we do here at the School of Public Health, and most of those ideas are nurtured and developed through collaborations among people, both inside and outside our school, who speak different "languages." That's one of the things that makes this institution one of the finest in the world - the global wealth of people, skill sets, experiences, and languages that constitutes daily life here at the University of Michigan.  

As scholars, our chief currency is ideas. So the challenge that any dean faces is to create a fertile environment in which the very best of those ideas can take shape and bear fruit. Among other things, this requires the constant removal of administrative obstacles and barriers that might otherwise clutter the paths of faculty, students, and staff.

It also requires a deep understanding of - and sensitivity to - the often difficult and circuitous way that ideas evolve. By their very nature, ideas are ephemeral. They come and go like wind over a field of wheat. They have no structure unless we make the effort to turn them from propositions into plans or actions.

But how do we do that?

Not all ideas are equal, of course. Many of the ideas we hear in the public discourse are fanciful notions that melt in the heat of the noonday sun of further scrutiny. As history teaches, the most elegant of ideas - vaccination, for instance - depend on profound thought, examination, and above all, wisdom.

At its core, public health is the science of ideas - but ideas with purpose and aim. That's our challenge. As ideas become concepts, and concepts morph into prototypes, there is an inherent danger that we will simply invent solutions for well-defined problem sets, rather than develop answers to the complex challenges of our world. In an era of big data, for example, we can all too easily categorize, measure, and massage data to address abstract problems, then throw the weight of our intellect into creating solutions for those less impactful questions. But that's not what public health should be doing. We should be using the tools of our profession to create optimal solutions tailored to the specific needs of individuals, families, communities, regions, and nations.

If we are to be successful as public health professionals, we must be relentless and disciplined in our pursuit of new ideas. We must continue to seek practical and wise solutions to the things that threaten human health. We must hold onto our ideals without yielding to idealism. And we must strike a balance between what I call "geekdom" - an obsession with numbers, percentages, standard deviations, and so on - and creative expression. Don't get me wrong - I love being a science geek - but one thing I've learned as dean is that we can't persuade people of the value of public health by inundating them with yet more facts and figures. We have to tell stories. We have to communicate our ideas in a language others can understand.

Ideas are born and grow most easily and effectively in a fully integrated school like ours, where we can enjoy the breadth of individual disciplines, but can also find imaginative ways of linking those disciplines in unusual combinations. Not only do we have one of the most highly ranked schools of public health in the nation, but we're part of a larger campus that encourages and promotes interdisciplinary research far beyond the walls of its individual schools and colleges. That's what makes Michigan great. More than most, this institution knows how to strengthen its most important currency - our ideas.

Martin Philbert
Dean and Professor of Toxicology