Making the world healthier
With its Grand Challenge Initiative on Global Health, the Berlin University Alliance is dedicated to improving the health of all people
Apr 20, 2021
Air pollution, migration, climate change, social inequality – all these have an impact on the health of people worldwide. Problems that cannot be solved within the boundaries of a single country and research area. And the current coronavirus pandemic has also shown that cooperation is needed more than ever to improve the health of the world's population and combat disease.
The second Grand Challenge Initiative of the Berlin University Alliance is dedicated to the theme Global Health. The term “global health” covers concepts and interventions to improve health in a globalized world. It is not only a question of successfully combating diseases medically, but also of social aspects, environmental protection and climate change, urban planning, and global nutrition. Therefore, in addition to the health sciences, law, environmental science, the natural and social sciences, as well as politics, religion, philosophy, material science, engineering, and communication studies are also central to global health.
“The Grand Challenge Initiative offers researchers the opportunity to join forces in shaping health and social aspects from the very beginning,” says Hansjörg Dilger, professor of social and cultural anthropology and head of the Research Area Medical Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin. As a member of the Global Health steering committee, he will be involved in the initiative's two-stage selection process. He would particularly like to see other social institutions involved in the projects, such as citizens who work in local communities around the world to improve health. Such collaborations are also central to Hansjörg Dilger's own work. He is one of the many researchers from the partner institutions who are working on the topic of global health in a wide variety of ways. For more than two decades, he has studied how societies around the world deal with health and disease. He has focused his research on African countries such as Tanzania and South Africa, but also in migration contexts in Berlin, including the handling of HIV.
Currently, Hansjörg Dilger is observing how different societies are reacting to the global coronavirus pandemic. As if under a microscope, this also shows the inequality in the world, how social groups are affected differently by disease depending on their access to health care, the conditions under which they earn their income, or how they (can) obtain information. In addition, political conditions and historical experience with previous epidemics have an impact.
“Now Europe is also experiencing how vulnerable it is when it comes to global infectious diseases.” Hansjörg Dilger
“In many Asian and African countries, far-reaching measures could be implemented much faster because people have already gained experience with diseases such as SARS, tuberculosis or Ebola,” says Hansjörg Dilger. People know what devastating consequences the spread of such a disease can have and are therefore sooner prepared to go along with it, he said. In some countries, the police or the military patrolling the streets to monitor compliance with the measures also triggered – justified – fears. But there are governments which also intervene so drastically in other contexts that the people are more prepared to accept this conduct in pandemic containment as well.
However, Hansjörg Dilger also sees the experience of the global pandemic as an opportunity for the so-called Global North and Global South to engage with each other differently in the future. The two designations are not understood as strictly delineated geographic areas, but as terms denoting existing hierarchies in both politics and research. “The Global North has considered itself primarily a part of the world where technologies are generated, produced, and exported to solve health problems,” says the social scientist. So far, he said, we have not been affected by potentially transnational diseases such as Ebola or SARS ourselves. Now Europe is also experiencing how vulnerable it is when it comes to global infectious diseases.
“In the future, we will have to think much more strongly about combining expertise, especially from African, Asian and Latin American countries, in tandem with our knowledge in the Global North,” says Hansjörg Dilger. The goal should be equal cooperation instead of the old top-down thinking. This is by no means an easy task, however, because there is an imbalance in the scope of research as a result of historical developments and postcolonial dependencies. How can global knowledge be brought into an equal exchange? This could also be an aspect that could be explored in more detail as part of the Grand Challenge Initiative on Global Health.
Reinhard Busse, professor of Healthcare Management at the Faculty of Economics and Management at Technische Universität Berlin also says: “Opportunities for comparison between different countries broaden our horizons.” His work has contributed significantly to the development of international health systems research. His team includes 30 researchers from the fields of medicine, political science, industrial engineering, and Public Health. For example, they are interested in the question: What are the criteria in a country for admitting someone to the hospital? Taking this perspective, it is striking that in Germany’s neighboring countries a third fewer people are hospitalized, which is not because there are more sick people in Germany. "We have many more beds and pay the hospitals only if they are occupied,” says Reinhard Busse.
Reinhard Busse, who is also a member of the Berlin University Alliance's Global Health steering committee, also looks at the issue of antibiotic resistance from a global perspective. “Antibiotic use varies in different countries, which has nothing to do with whether there are more or fewer bacterial infections,” the physician says. The reasons lie, for example, in regulatory circumstances, for example whether antibiotics can be bought over-the-counter in pharmacies like in Spain, that general practitioners prescribe them with varying frequency, and the population is more or less informed about side effects.
“´Global Health` researchers need to think more broadly and in larger contexts.” says Reinhard Busse
“Antibiotic usage in commercial animal farming also plays a crucial role,” says Reinhard Busse. It enters the food chain of millions of people worldwide through the global production of meat. So, if we want to combat the problem that there are no longer any effective antibiotics against certain bacteria in German hospital wards, we must also consider reducing the global consumption of antibiotics. “Global Health” researchers need to think more broadly and in larger contexts,” says Reinhard Busse. “In the end, however, their findings come back to the local physicians.” Complex problems like these can only be solved when people with a range of disciplinary backgrounds and approaches come together. “The Grand Challenge Initiative also thrives on this,” says Reinhard Busse.
This was also evident with regard to the first call for proposals of the Grand Challenge Initiatives, which was dedicated to the topic of social cohesion. In response to the question “What holds our global society together at its core?” so many convincing applications for research projects were received that, since October 2020, six instead of the initially planned five projects have been funded with a total volume of 7.1 million euros. One of them, for example, deals with the role museums play at the center of virulent social debates. Here, researchers from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Technische Universität Berlin collaborate with the Museum für Naturkunde – Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science and the Research and Documentation Centre at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Other projects look at how solidarity is created in the migration society and what interactions there are between our food system and social cohesion issues.
The Grand Challenge Initiative on Global Health is accompanied by a Research Forum that puts the initiative on a broader footing. Here, social actors from different areas – representatives from science, society, politics, culture, and economy – should be able to contribute to the research process.
Call for proposals for the “Grand Challenge Initiative on Global Health”
As part of the Grand Challenge Initiative on Global Health, entitled “Determinants of Global Health: Exploring Biological, Human-made & Environmental Factors,” the Berlin University Alliance is funding projects to explore the critical factors that influence global health. Researchers are welcome to apply with an innovative excellent research project on global health. Thereby, the projects are intended to pursue a transdisciplinary research approach. This means that they also involve non-scientific expertise, for example from civil society or politics. A prerequisite for funding is that at least two of the partner institutions belonging to the Berlin Excellence Alliance are involved. The projects are funded with a maximum of 450,000 euros per year for up to three years. The aim is for the start-up funding to lead to the long-term development of larger interdisciplinary alliance research projects with non-scientific participation in Berlin. For with the founding of the Berlin University Alliance, Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin, and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin have set themselves the common goal of shaping the capital as an integrated research space dedicated to societal challenges of global significance – the “Grand Challenges”.
All information about the call and application will be available on the website of the Grand Challenge Initiative on Global Health from April 26, 2021.