“Microbiology? What does it have to do with public policy?’, one might ask before reading this article.
I decided to pursue studies in the Master in Public Policy (MPP) programme after completing undergraduate studies in chemistry and biochemistry as I was interested in global health security. Fortunately, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) hosts Professor Tikki Pangestu , who has not only entered the public policy domain as a natural scientist himself but has also led the Research Policy & Cooperation department of the World Health Organization (WHO) for 13 years in my home country Switzerland.
The WHO has coined the term ‘global health security’ in 2001. Since then, several unforeseen events such as the SARS coronavirus outbreak in Southern China a year later have adversely affected the health and livelihoods of thousands of people as well as economies not only in Asia but all over the world. In 2014, the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa marked the most significant incident which underlined the importance of the WHO’s approach to considering epidemics and pandemics as a security issue. For the first time in its history, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution related to a health emergency, which the council regarded as a ‘threat to international peace and security.’ The resolution prompted the most extensive international military intervention to a health crisis to date with the largest contributions originating from the United States and China.
Germany assumes an important role in global health security. Besides its active membership in the WHO and its commitment during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, it is also a member of the Global Health Security Agenda and the Global Health Security Initiative, two multi-national partnerships formed to jointly tackle challenges in global health security.
During summer 2018, I had the honour of working for the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology (IMB) as a scientific intern. The IMB is the scientific centre of competence for the biological medical defence of the German Armed Forces and is part of the Medical Academy in Munich. Besides its capacities in scientific research, teaching, and training, the IMB also participates in the development of national and international concepts and strategies in biodefense for the German Federal Government.
Since 2013, the IMB is a stakeholder in the German Biosecurity Programme, which was launched by the Federal Foreign Office under the auspices of the Group of Seven Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. The programme aims to increase preparedness against biosecurity threats such as outbreaks of highly pathogenic diseases in partner countries in Africa, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.
In addition, the IMB was a partner in the European Mobile Laboratory Project, a foreseeing project initiated in 2012 striving to bolster the capacities in Europe and Africa to respond to serious outbreaks of infectious diseases. As part of this project, the IMB developed a mobile laboratory with the capacity to diagnose a range of infectious diseases on site, which is vital in the time-critical setting of disease outbreaks. This lab was deployed to Guinea in 2014 during the Ebola outbreak upon request of the WHO. More than 5,800 samples were tested for the Ebola virus in the field laboratory within the 15 months of its deployment.
The internship at IMB was a unique and enriching experience, in which I could combine my expertise in natural sciences and public policy. I opine that more students with a background in natural sciences and medicine should enter the policy domain. In my cohort, less than 8% of the students have a background in biology, chemistry, chemical engineering, environmental sciences, or medicine. However, solving policy challenges related to science and technology more than often requires a fundamental understanding of these fields. Conversely, I assert that a scientific education on its own is insufficient to address challenges from the policy angle. Scientists need to get out of their comfort zone in the lab and participate in policy-making. The MPP programme has greatly helped me in this transition.
I want to express my gratitude to PD Dr. Gregor Grass and Capt. Peter Braun at the IMB for hosting and teaching me during the internship and to LKYSPP for the generous support in realizing this internship. Furthermore, I would like to refer to the internship report of my esteemed classmate and friend Dr. med. Nay Lin Tun from Myanmar, who is also engaged in the field of health security.