IPPH’s Future Priorities

Dear colleagues,

Shortly after my appointment as Scientific Director of CIHR’s Institute of Population & Public Health (IPPH), I commenced a “Listening Tour” to learn more about the needs and priorities of population and public health (PPH) researchers across Canada and to hear different visions for our field’s future. Today I am pleased to share with you three priority areas in which IPPH will be investing over the next few years that come as a direct result of this broad consultation process.

Overview of the Listening Tour

IPPH’s Listening Tour started in September 2016. Over the 10 months that followed I travelled to nearly every region of Canada, speaking with over 2,200 PPH researchers, students and stakeholders in 8 provinces, 11 cities and 28 institutions. I saw many old friends and made even more new acquaintances.

At each stop along the tour I would share what I had heard at earlier stops and I invited colleagues to build on those ideas from there. By pursuing this consultative and iterative approach, I hoped to benefit from the crowd-sourced collective intelligence of our community for how IPPH could support all PPH researchers and which focused areas we should prioritize for strategic investment.

This consultation process included Canadian PPH researchers working in a variety of settings. We reached out to schools of public health, medicine, nursing, rehabilitation and epidemiology, as well as PPH researchers from the social sciences, public policy and related university departments. We engaged federal, provincial and municipal government departments, as well as many health charities and NGOs who help fund and implement PPH interventions.

The Listening Tour reconfirmed for me the continued relevance of the vision set out in IPPH’s current strategic plan, Health Equity Matters (2015-2018), which emphasizes 1) coherent intersectoral action for population and public health improvements, 2) scalable population health solutions, and 3) equitable population health impacts. We plan to continue in this direction by embedding these as cross-cutting elements within new IPPH strategic initiatives. Our mandate will also remain unchanged: to improve the health of populations and promote health equity in Canada and globally through research and its application to policies, programs, and practice in public health and other sectors.

But going forward, IPPH will more narrowly focus its limited resources on three new strategic areas. This imperative to focus comes from my own view that IPPH will only maximize its potential if we select and vigorously pursue a few priorities. To me, prioritizing everything is equivalent to prioritizing nothing.

The three priority areas for investment were chosen based on three questions that I asked colleagues at each stop in the Listening Tour. First, is there an area of PPH where Canadian researchers are already world leaders and where a strategic investment could amplify those inspiring efforts in a transformative way? Second, is there an area of PPH that we know will be vital for future practice and policy but in which we do not currently have much research capacity? Third, is there an area of PPH where IPPH is uniquely positioned to leverage its comparative advantages to support knowledge translation and evidence-based practices and policies?

Priority Areas for Investment

1) Supporting World-Class Research on the Design of Healthy Cities, an area of existing strength where strategic investment can amplify ongoing efforts

PPH researchers in Canada have been at the forefront of research on how to design healthy cities so that people can live in healthier environments that are free from the worst health hazards and where they are nudged toward healthy behaviours. 81% of Canadians currently live in cities – with more expected in the coming years – which means that enhancing the health-promoting potential of urban environments is critical for nearly all of us.

While healthy cities research is an area of existing strength, shared challenges became apparent during the Listening Tour. Many projects never evolve past the pilot stage for various reasons, including lack of sustainable funding or sufficient support for continued implementation and institutionalization. Additionally, there are many successful and productive teams around the country working in this area independently, which could probably benefit from greater networking, shared resources, and coordination towards even larger-scale projects.

With additional strategic investment in healthy cities research, I believe Canada is poised for even greater world-class research excellence in this field. IPPH is already funding significant work in this area, most recently through our 9 Intersectoral Prevention Research Teams worth over $17 million. Additionally, our current roster of Applied Public Health Chairs includes 7 scholars working in the area of healthy cities research. In order to shape and build a Healthy Cities Research Initiative, we have already begun to engage potential funding partners across the federal government, health charities and cities themselves. In late September we will be co-hosting with The Wellcome Trust an international research funders meeting on healthy cities in Coimbra, Portugal, and in December we will host a workshop in Canada for leading Canadian researchers in this field.

2) Building Research Capacity to Use Artificial Intelligence Approaches, an area of great future importance where research capacity-building efforts would be helpful

Artificial intelligence (AI) and other big-data approaches are currently being used in various fields of medical and healthcare research, including medical diagnostics, image recognition, new drug discovery, genomics and personalized medicine. However, despite many potential applications, these approaches are not being widely used by Canadian researchers to advance health promotion, prevention and protection. Many public health issues often involve complex combinations of individual, environmental, socio-cultural and political influences that are difficult to measure and evaluate using traditional approaches. However, artificial intelligence approaches like machine learning may provide us with exciting new way to analyze complex, multi-layered, multi-modal data, and to craft solutions based on a far larger range of insights.

This month, IPPH will issue a funding opportunity for planning grants to explore the use of AI approaches to answer PPH questions. Funded researchers will be invited to come together at a workshop in Fall 2018 to share ideas for how the use of these methods can be better supported. We are also hoping to co-host a workshop before then, as early as this Fall 2017, to foster partnerships between PPH and AI researchers and generate ideas for collaborative projects. I plan to act quickly on this priority because I believe we are at a critical moment in which long-term capacity-building efforts must start soon in order for our community to not be left behind in the use of AI approaches.

3) Supporting Evidence-Based Substance Use Regulations and Policies, an area where IPPH can leverage its comparative advantages

With the legalization of cannabis around the corner, substance use was a topic that came up again and again during the Listening Tour. It is also a priority of the federal government, an issue where IPPH has been invited to take leadership roles across government departments, and where we have achieved some traction in advocating for both the use of existing PPH research and the funding of new PPH research for future application.

On cannabis, we are proactively leading efforts to prioritize and fund the most pressing research with five other CIHR Institutes, including 1) Circulatory & Respiratory Health, 2) Gender & Health, 3) Health Services & Policy Research, 4) Human Development, Child & Youth Health, and 5) Neurosciences, Mental Health & Addiction. We will be focusing our strategic investments on research that is urgently necessitated by the upcoming legalization of non-medical cannabis and research that can only be conducted in Canada. We started with a $1 million funding opportunity for catalyst grants involving population health intervention research on the legalization of non-medical cannabis – applications for which are currently in peer-review – and we are planning to make further investments going forward. In a few weeks, we are co-hosting a workshop that will bring researchers together to craft a research agenda for such future investments.

Beyond cannabis, we are supporting the leadership of CIHR’s Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health & Addiction in crafting the federal research response to the opioid crisis, and we are working with Health Canada to inform e-cigarette and vaping product regulations with the best-available research evidence. Stay tuned.

Scientific Leadership

Of course, IPPH is more than just its investment priorities. We additionally have a mandate to provide scientific leadership for the field, to facilitate new research opportunities, and to advocate for what PPH researchers bring to the table. In addition to my role as CIHR’s Scientific Lead for Global Health – on which I will update you separately – there are a few areas in which IPPH will take leadership.

Growing PPH Research Funding: The latest results of funding from CIHR’s open operating grant programs show the greatest proportion of grants ever awarded to PPH research. IPPH will continue to use its limited strategic funding budget to drive, incentivize and support PPH researchers to secure the bigger and more sustainable grants available through CIHR’s Project and Foundation Schemes, where 70% of CIHR’s operating grant dollars lie. Additionally, in continuously tracking application pressure and success rates of CIHR programs, we will adjust our strategic funding opportunities and outreach as needed.

Supporting PPH’s Newest Investigators: IPPH will also continue to foster the next generation of PPH researchers by advocating for new investigators at CIHR’s Science Council table, by continuing to host an annual Starting Investigator Workshop (our inaugural workshop in June 2017 was a great success!), and by funding training initiatives such as CIHR’s Health System Impact Fellowships. Additionally, we hope to reserve a percentage of grants in future strategic initiatives for new investigators. These programs and initiatives should allow us to build on IPPH’s track record for capacity-building and to support the newest PPH researchers among us.

Advocating for Gender Equity in Science: IPPH is committed to addressing gender inequities that exist within Canada’s health research eco-system. Much has progressed at CIHR over the past year since development and implementation of a Gender Equity Framework – but so much more work remains. When one considers the big challenges facing science in Canada, I personally believe the most important challenge that I can help address as a CIHR Scientific Director is the collection of systematic gender biases that pervade science. While CIHR is only one small player and can only be one small part of the solution, we have access to unique levers and incentives that I believe should be fully mustered to make meaningful progress in correcting this unacceptable problem. I plan to use every lever available to me to diminish gender bias in science, including creating funding opportunities, informing science policy, communicating about the problem, identifying solutions, supporting champions, and advocating for change. In addition, we will also partner with like-minded entities such as CIHR’s Institute of Gender & Health to champion the integration of sex- and gender-based analysis in research itself, ensuring that scientific progress helps people of all sexes and genders. I look forward to sharing more with you about this shortly.

Looking Forward to 2018 and Beyond

Plenty of work remains, but I am confident that IPPH will continue to make important contributions as we progress in acting upon our priorities. Despite ongoing funding constraints, this is an exciting time for PPH research in Canada with lots of opportunities to make a real difference.

I wish to thank everyone who joined me on my Listening Tour, including those who helped organize local events and those who participated in them. Your contributions helped craft a vision for IPPH’s next few years and identify clear strategic priorities on which we will focus. I look forward to sharing more with you in the upcoming months, and developing a more formal roadmap for the next phase of IPPH’s activities.

Feel free to forward this message to colleagues and encourage them to sign up for our newsletters to learn about future funding opportunities and developments.

Best,
Steven

Steven J. Hoffman JD PhD LLD
Scientific Director, CIHR Institute of Population & Public Health
Director, Global Strategy Lab, and
Professor of Global Health, Law and Politics, York University

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