Professor Alan Bernstein has been announced as the new Director of Global Health at the University of Oxford.
In his new role, Dr. Bernstein oversees Oxford Global Health across all four academic divisions, ensuring the University continues to produce innovative, collaborative, and cutting-edge global health research across multiple disciplines.
The distinguished professor brings to his new position an extensive background in leadership and research. Professor Bernstein is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto and President Emeritus of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. Other experiences include being the former inaugural president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Executive Director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise. He has made groundbreaking contributions to retrovirology, stem cell biology, and cancer research.
With this wealth of experience, Dr. Bernstein looks forward to bringing people together, providing support to research projects, and building on Oxford’s reputation as a leader in global health. Global health is a broad academic field that encompasses a wide array of disciplines such as the sciences and humanities. In an interview with the new Director, he emphasised the great fit between Oxford and global health in addressing global health challenges.
“Oxford has unparalleled strengths in all [areas of research]”, he said. “My vision for Oxford Global Health is to capture that value, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
A major challenge confronting Oxford Global Health is the limited interaction and awareness amongst its researchers who specialise in different dimensions of global health. Dr. Bernstein attributes this disconnect to researchers being busy with their own work, the geographic separation between the main campus and his office, as well as division boundaries that may inhibit cross-division collaboration. Though he noted he does not believe in interdisciplinarity as an end in itself, global health issues are often connected to wider phenomena such as climate change, thus commonly requiring holistic and integrated approaches to research.
Already, Oxford Global Health researchers, in collaboration with partners spanning over 60 countries worldwide, work to provide pioneering research and solutions to global health challenges, especially those that impact low- and middle-income countries. They are committed to producing interdisciplinary, inclusive, and ethical research that makes a positive impact.
Students interested in Oxford Global Health have a myriad of courses to choose from since it’s a pan-divisional initiative. The extensive list includes programmes such as an MSc in Medical Anthropology, an MSc in International Health and Tropical Medicine, and an MPhil in History of Science, Medicine and Technology.
Oxford Global Health is supported by the University’s Strategic Research Fund (SRF), which funds multidisciplinary initiatives that address major research challenges and help the University maintain its global competitive edge. Dr. Bernstein said it’s important to convince funders of the value and importance of multidisciplinary research, especially as it relates to issues concerning global health. For instance, new technologies that have the potential to transform and impact healthcare require interdisciplinary research.
Funding impacts student education, he continued. In the age of interdisciplinarity, funding both inspires and develops these approaches.
“Universities like Oxford have to not only encourage [multidisciplinary research], but also reward it”, he said. “They have to see it as the future.”
Through listening and talking to various stakeholders such as students, faculty, and funders, Dr. Bernstein hopes to continue to provide the appropriate direction and guidance to support Oxford Global Health. He is striving to bring together these interests to establish coherent and focused objectives.
The cross-disciplinary nature of Oxford Global Health has led to an impressive research portfolio. From the biomedical sciences, the University boasts accomplishments such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19, the RECOVERY Trial, and more recently, a malaria vaccine. From the social sciences, a noteworthy example is Professor Melinda Mills and her interdisciplinary work in population health. Oxford Global Health has thus produced research that makes a global impact.
The interplay between the more scientific side of global health and the social sciences and humanities side is often what produces this kind of innovative research. Dr. Bernstein raises the example of socioeconomic and biological determinants of health. While academics may point to one or the other, in reality, both provide a more comprehensive understanding of what determines health. This complex interplay often characterises interdisciplinary global health research. Dr. Bernstein points to the importance of being able to use this research to inform policymakers.
“Public policy is where the rubber hits the road”, he said. “One of my objectives with Oxford Global Health is not simply to get some great papers [… ]. It is to see that science actually affects policy where it’s appropriate in terms of the evidence a policymaker can use, not just in rich countries, but also in the developing world where there’s a huge need for evidence to back policy.”
As Dr. Bernstein adjusts to his new role, he aims to continue to champion Oxford Global Health as a leading producer of multidisciplinary and influential research.
“Students are the future”, he said. “Students are interested in solving real-world problems in global health. Those real-world problems often cross disciplinary, division, and department boundaries and that’s where Oxford Global Health can help.”
Image description: Professor Alan Bernstein, smiling