‘Think-and-do-tank’ lays groundwork for real-world innovation
By Chris Chipello
Hardly a day goes by without the obesity epidemic making headlines. In just the past week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans to ban the sale of jumbo sodas at restaurants and movie theatres, while Michelle Obama launched a book aimed at getting American families to embrace healthier foods.
Obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular conditions, represent an alarming and costly scourge across the developed world. They are also an emerging threat in developing countries, where the path to industrialization and away from subsistence agriculture has shrunk from centuries to decades. Meanwhile, a growing body of scientific evidence is shedding light on why it’s so hard for people to lose weight – and keep it off.
Amid the sometimes-confusing debates surrounding the obesity problem, this much is clear: it is a complex phenomenon, and won’t be solved without bringing together key experts from a range of academic disciplines and decision-makers from many segments of society. That’s exactly what Desautels Faculty of Management Prof. Laurette Dubé has been doing for the past decade.
Dubé, who worked as a hospital nutritionist before becoming a professor of consumer psychology and marketing, focused her research on health issues tied to diet and lifestyle a few years after joining McGill in 1995. She soon realized that many of the most intractable challenges stem from a clash between our biological makeup and the modern environment in which we go about our daily lives.
In 2003, she launched a series of annual Health Challenge Think Tanks, designed to get leading academics, business people and policy makers behind efforts to foster healthier lifestyles. The annual conferences drew economic thinkers such as Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Daniel Kahneman, along with prominent scientists in fields ranging from clinical medicine to information systems .
Those events led to the creation three years ago of the McGIll World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence, and a research agenda based on what Dubé calls a “whole-of-society” approach to prevention. (International organizations have picked up on that concept, she notes: a 2011 United Nations summit on non-communicable diseases called for a “whole-of-society” effort to deal with the challenge.)
After five years of think tanks, Dubé says, it was time to become “a think-and-do tank, where the research is supporting ongoing actions with partners.” The ambitious goal: to produce a roadmap for sweeping changes in how food is grown, processed, distributed, marketed, sold and consumed, so that improved population-wide health can go hand-in-hand with a thriving food industry.
Joining forces with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the MWP also turned its attention to the challenge of accelerating nutrition security at the other end of the development continuum by promoting sustainable development of the farming and food sectors in the developing world – a focus that drew Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to McGill in 2010 to discuss his vision of social business.
Now, the groundwork that Dubé has laid over the past decade is leading to a series of new milestones.
Later this month (June 22-24), the MWP and INCLEN Trust International – an India-based, global network of clinical epidemiologists, biostatisticians, social scientists, and other health care professionals affiliated with key academic health-care institutions — will co-host a major workshop in Delhi , bringing together researchers, senior government policy makers, and top executives from multinationals such as PepsiCo, Firmenich and Medtronic, to discuss ways to curb hunger and improve nutrition and health around the world. The participants will examine innovative projects already underway. (One such initiative, for example, involves the launch in India of an iron-enriched strain of millet that faces certain marketing challenges in order to carve out a significant place in the food chain; another is the scaling up of mobile technology tracking maternal and child health in rural india and linking these to health delivery systems .)
The most promising innovations identified in Delhi will be the focus of another MWP gathering at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy in late November. There, participants will explore ways to expand these projects in the months and years ahead – a goal that dovetails with the Rockefeller Foundation’s vision of “a world in which globalization’s benefits are more widely shared.”
In recent months, Dubé also has been co-editing a set of papers, for a forthcoming issue of the influential Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, on harnessing the power of business and society to address food and nutrition security problems. That project grew out of her 2008 think-tank with the Gates Foundation.
The ever-active Dubé, who grew up in a family of 13 children on a dairy farm in the Gaspé village of Baie-des-Sables, continues to pursue the MWP’s think-and-do agenda in Quebec, as well.
In communities across Quebec, MWP researchers are working with Québec en forme, an organization founded by the Fondation Lucie et André Chagnon and the Quebec government to promote healthy eating and physical fitness among young Quebecers, particularly from underprivileged backgrounds. The researchers are helping to monitor more than 600 children in nine communities where major efforts are being made to improve health and fitness. Another project will examine what influences eating habits among kids in three particular communities, and how the food system may be modified to entice youngsters to embrace healthier diets.
On sabbatical for the coming academic year, Dubé will spend four months in Europe followed by six months in India, keeping tabs on projects identified at the Delhi and Bellagio conferences.
In late August, she and Boston-based science journalist David H. Freedman will begin a month-long collaborative writing residency at the Bellagio Center, to work on a book about rethinking the global food system.
“Food is the entry point,” Dubé says, but the book is “really about revisiting industrialization and the disconnect between traditional agriculture, rapid industrialization, and health systems development.”