The Vital Role of Research Universities in Solving Humanity’s Worst Public Health Crises

It’s official: we are living in unprecedented times. Not since the Great Bubonic Plague 650 years ago has a public health crisis affected such a large proportion of the world’s population in such an intense way.

Many of us are deep enough into this new normal that we’ve literally gone through all five stages of grief:

  1. Denial – This isn’t as big a deal as people are saying.
  2. Anger – This stinks!
  3. Bargaining – If we all just stay home for two weeks, we can beat this!
  4. Depression – Oh man, it’s going to be way more than two weeks.
  5. Acceptance – (deep sigh…)

But what’s after that? Someday we’ll look back and marvel at how primitive things are today. We’ll have figured out a vaccine, or a cure, or both, and the novel coronavirus will go the way of polio: a once-feared killer that has long since been eradicated.

But progress is not guaranteed. One thing I can boldly guarantee: one or more research universities will be heavily involved in making it happen.

Last month we examined the fundamental proposition higher education offers, namely an education that involves a distinct period of time, a central location, and physical proximity with others. Today we consider how those same ingredients produce world-changing scientific discoveries.

Why am I so certain this is where the magic will happen? Three reasons:

  1. Research universities are uniquely positioned to marry mission, resources, and location to solve our hardest problems. Neither businesses nor government can do this. The private sector functions on profit motive and organizational nimbleness. The public sector functions on societal wellbeing and fiat power. Both are needed for our most vexing public health crises. But so are large-scale institutions, who are motivated to translate research infrastructure and human capital into scientific discoveries.
  2. Research universities are the perfect laboratories for inter-disciplinary thinking. Beating this particular global pandemic will involve experts in infectious diseases, yes, but also epidemiologists, zoologists, and molecular biologists, and not only all of those experts and then some, but a platform for those experts to work with and learn from one another. Universities like Penn, Emory and Tulane are prolific in the public health space precisely because of the inter-disciplinary mechanisms and culture they have instituted to encourage this kind of mixing. We’re already seeing that kind of interdisciplinary collaboration in action: medical and veterinary researchers pivoting to finding a vaccine and creating quicker testing procedures, engineers and designers making Personal Protective Equipment with new techniques and technology, and epidemologists and mathematicians modeling the next potential hot spot.
  3. Research universities are lifting up, inspiring, and preparing the next generation of scientists. In the long war between humans and pathogens, the humans will need reinforcements. Rising tuitions and mounting student loan amounts remain a deterrent, but many universities have been very aggressive in removing that deterrent. Scientific innovation can’t happen if we’re systematically excluding entire groups of people. Conversely, as more future scientists, from a wider diversity of backgrounds, are supported in their dream to make a difference in the research lab, breakthrough will invariably ensue.

We have a long way to go and we don’t know what’s next. History tells us COVID-19 will eventually be in our rearview mirror. When we get there, it is likely that both the public and private sector will have played some part in making that happen. But we can also be assured that one or more research universities had a critical role along the way.


Gina Lavery is a director at ESI. Her practice areas include economic and fiscal impact assessments, economic development and market studies, as well as transportation. Prior to joining ESI, Gina was a research analyst for Jones Lang LaSalle in Philadelphia where she was responsible for market research and analysis.

Lee Huang Lee Huang brings over 20 years of experience in economic development experience to his public, private, institutional, and not-for-profit clients. He has led consulting engagements in a wide range of fields, including higher education, economic inclusion, environmental sustainability, historic preservation, real estate, neighborhood economic development, non-profits, retail, state and local government, strategic planning, tax policy, and tourism/hospitality, and is a sought-after speaker on these and other topics.

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