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April 27, 2017

Susan Michie’s report The Health of People (“To improve people’s health, listen to social scientists”, Opinion, 13 April) makes an excellent strategic recommendation for a national coordinating body for population health research. But thousands of us across higher education rarely operate at that strategic level.

For those colleagues, I would take up Michie’s phrase “make better use of the resources available”. The invaluable resource is our students. Can we better prepare social science graduates for careers in population health, by, for example, enabling them to get work with local authority public health services, the NHS or health charities? Even more challenging, how do we steer fledgling geographers, social anthropologists, statisticians and the like into Whitehall departments or the thinktanks that are “encouraging behavioural change”?

Two experiences could make social science students more attractive to employers. Undergraduates may have limited opportunities to undertake community projects, so enabling inreach of experienced public health (guest) lecturers and short-term (taster) placements could build mutual interest. However, potential employers value experience of projects and teamwork. Master’s degrees should offer those experiences, in a context of community needs and professional supervision. Universities used to invest in inreach and community partnerships, but funding changes and the challenge of supervising overseas students in neighbourhood projects seem to have shrunk those partnerships.

The coming teaching excellence framework gives social scientists an opportunity to rethink student engagement with local organisations and populations. The Campaign for Social Science, which bridges academic disciplines and policymakers, has a pool of experts who can help.

Woody Caan
Professorial fellow of the Royal Society for Public Health

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