Centennial Grand Challenges

As Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health celebrates its centennial, we reflect on the fact that through current and past work of our faculty, students and alumni, the School has improved the of lives of millions of people throughout the world. Bookended by two pandemics—the 1918 flu and now COVID-19—Columbia has contributed significantly to the last century of public health advancement. Despite the many public health-driven advances of the last century, public health has fallen notably short of its aspirations. Significant health disparities persist and our longer lives are often lived in ill-health. These and other shortfalls reflect the public and government’s failure to truly appreciate public health’s significance, seen in the following: while 60% to 70% of health is attributed to public health factors, only 3% of U.S. health dollars go towards public health research and practice. This disproportionate spending has challenged public health for decades, compounded by government’s continued disinvestments in the science and public health systems we need to build healthy populations.

The test of public health’s potential now is not simply how we respond to COVID-19 and prepare for future pandemics. Rather, our test is how we elevate the public’s and government’s support for and investment in the field, elevating public health’s unique capabilities to address the complex, intertwined challenges that COVID-19 has revealed in stark detail, which include what we refer to as our Grand Challenges around how to better succeed and creating healthy populations: 1) growing health inequities with high rates of obesity and chronic disease; 2) the health impacts of climate change; 3) aging populations and longer lives that could be healthy but are not; 4) the inadequacy of food systems; 5) the global mental health crisis; and 6) the likelihood of increased rates of future pandemics. These challenges represent a series of interdependent issues that require team-based approaches to solve.

To advance critical research on these and other critical issues, in 2022 Columbia Mailman issued a Centennial Grand Challenges RFA to spur team development and discovery. Full-time faculty holding primary appointments in one of the School's Departments or Centers were eligible to apply with their research teams. 

Eight teams were selected to receive awards to study issues including artificial intelligence and chronic disease; infectious disease modeling and prediction; healthy longevity; global mental health and psychosocial wellbeing; and food systems and climate change.  

Opportunities for Mailman, Columbia, and the World

Columbia Mailman is committed to building the science and solutions on these issues, in addition to making progress on longstanding challenges, and leading on re-engineering the entire field of public health. To do this, we need to prepare and enable leaders to think expansively, work across disciplines to achieve more cutting-edge discovery, and harness the rapid changes in science, such as the potential of big data and data science for health, to accelerate solutions and transform health. If we succeed in shifting the field and expanding our impact, we could change the trajectory of health and health resilience on the planet, creating the conditions for all humans to thrive in symphony with our planet’s thriving.

Columbia Mailman is ideally positioned to take on the pressing health needs of current and future generations. To lead the needed transformational change in the public health ecosystem, Columbia Mailman must complete its own transformation into an agile, interdisciplinary school with the capacity to push the field forward on multiple fronts. By 2035, Columbia Mailman must accomplish as great a leap as that of the last 100 years to develop and implement unified, actionable solutions to the biggest public health challenges the world faces. With empowered teams, we are confident we can make this great leap successfully.