Bernhard Schwartländer, global health envoy with the German Foreign Office, said the higher education sector needed to focus on producing “strategic information…that hurts”.
“It hurts people in a way that they feel triggered and obliged to…move in a certain direction, to take difficult and inconvenient decisions,” Dr Schwartländer told the Association of Pacific Rim Universities leaders forum hosted by Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.
“We can trigger those decisions by providing the right information [which] puts people on the spot and says, ‘You have the choice; you can do this or that.’ And it’s obvious which is the right choice.”
He said universities and researchers needed to get better at “finding that right piece of information that triggers a completely different sector in society to get into gear”. This ability constituted a “research topic” in its own right, he added.
A medical doctor, epidemiologist and former chef de cabinet for the World Health Organisation’s director general, Dr Schwartländer was discussing how universities could work more effectively with diplomats and other decision-makers.
He said that this was a pertinent question in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, which had fuelled innovation of unprecedented pace – in isolating the virus, publishing the genomic sequence, developing an “excellent lab test” and producing “highly effective” vaccines – amid institutional inertia that had stymied the sharing of information until “all checks had been done” and the findings had been published in “a renowned journal”.
None of the blockbuster movies about catastrophic epidemics have captured the “disconnect between some of the most impressive scientific progress and political realities based on mistrust, individual interests [and] the lack of foresight”, Dr Schwartländer said.
He advocated bringing students “to the forefront” of policy development. “It is about linking the wisdom of the communities in general into decision-making. That requires more than hierarchical systems.”