Q&A with Alastair Ager

We speak to the director of the Institute of International Health and Development at Queen Margaret University

March 12, 2015

The Ebola epidemic has been significant not just because of the number of lives lost but because it represents a major challenge to assumptions about our capacity to control disease

Alastair Ager has worked in international health and development for almost a quarter of a century. He was foundation director of the Institute of International Health and Development (IIHD) at Queen Margaret University and senior research manager for the UK’s Department for International Development. In July, after 10 years at Columbia University, he will return to the IIHD as director.

Where and when were you born?
Birmingham, UK in 1956.

How has this shaped you?
My brother and I were first-generation university attenders. It has taken me 40 years to really work out how the “system” works, and I am keen to help those from similar backgrounds negotiate their way through higher education. It has also left me a lifelong Birmingham City fan whose pulse still quickens at 4.45pm UK time on a Saturday.

What is your primary focus when you take up your new role?
Creating ever-stronger links between research, teaching and programme engagement at the IIHD. Engaging in the Syria crisis over the past two years has convinced me more than ever of the value of this integrated approach.

How well has the world reacted to the Ebola crisis?
I think the Ebola epidemic has been significant not just because of the number of lives lost but because it has represented a major challenge to assumptions about our capacity to control disease. It has demonstrated how fragile health systems are in parts of West Africa, with loss of health personnel and disruption of travel likely having resulted in far more indirect than direct deaths from the disease. It has also shown up fragility in our mechanisms of global coordination of response, with delays in decision-making and implementation, and the potential for misplaced public fears regarding returning health workers.

Has the media attention to the Ebola outbreak changed attitudes to serious illnesses that afflict thousands of people but that aren’t necessarily given column inches?
Public consciousness of health needs and concerns of other populations has never been greater. Media coverage and social media provide such vivid insights. These and other forces of globalisation have combined to establish a strong sense of global connectedness, particularly among students.

Is there an impending global health/humanitarian crisis that wider society isn’t aware of, or existing situations that are not getting the coverage they need?
The situation in Syria and neighbouring countries remains deeply troubling as both a political crisis and a health crisis. The displacement of half a million Palestinians registered in Syria – twice dislocated, first from Palestine, and now from or within Syria – is a poorly appreciated dimension.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
I’d be tempted to suggest specialisation and commitment to a specific research theme that you can potentially “mine” for decades. But I’d secretly hope I would avoid such pragmatic advice, and celebrate the opportunities for engagement in diverse topics. Columbia has been a great place to explore the interdisciplinarity sown in my heart at Keele University [while an undergraduate].

If you were a prospective university student facing £9,000 a year fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
A tough call. My undergraduate days at Keele were hugely influential on my formation in terms of values, intellect and approach. I grew up there, and it set me on a path for employment and vocation. But I recognise that for many the workplace provides just that sort of testing ground for character and commitments. I certainly advise students to seek employment after their first degree before considering postgraduate study.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I don’t have a specific hero. The current focus of my admiration is a local doctor in Damascus coordinating health programmes for displaced Syrians. He has such grace and commitment in a hazardous, challenging environment.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
One who received a government grant.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
My first utterance at university – after my mum had dropped me off in the car park of the students’ union – displayed rather weak assimilation of the language of institutions of advanced learning. Approaching the young woman behind the welcome desk, I assembled a rather hesitant – and shamingly adolescent – “I’m fresh today”.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Having so many things going on at the same time. Having so many things going on at the same time.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
I’d strengthen the expectations regarding research impact, both within the research excellence framework and through greater engagement of research users in the research funding councils.


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