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The post-pandemic university will understand the ‘intersection of health, technology and society,’ says public health expert Vivek Goel

In a Q&A, incoming U of Waterloo president Vivek Goel reflects on cutting through the noise of COVID-19 information, his vision for a post-pandemic university and what working in public health has in common with academic administration.

BY LAURA BEAULNE-STUEBING | MAR 10 2021

Vivek Goel is the kind of person you want in your corner during a global pandemic. A leading public health researcher, and an advocate for evidence-based health policy, Dr. Goel was also the founding head and CEO of Public Health Ontario from 2008 to 2014, an arm’s-length government agency established in response to the SARS outbreak of 2003. When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared last year, Dr. Goel stepped down from his role as vice-president, research and innovation, at the University of Toronto to help guide the university’s COVID-19 planning efforts as a special advisor to the president and provost. Dr. Goel is also a member of the federal government’s COVID-19 immunity task force and scientific advisor for the CanCOVID Research Network.

On Febuary 17, Dr. Goel, who will join the University of Waterloo as its next president and vice-chancellor on July 1, gave a keynote address at Universities Canada’s (publisher of University Affairs) annual conference for university directors of communications and government relations officers. In his presentation, Dr. Goel discussed Canada’s response to the pandemic and lessons for university communications staff. He noted that ’the federal government poured about $2 billion into COVID-19 research in the first six months of the pandemic – essentially the annual budget of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – without much coordination between funding agencies. “That has led to an overwhelming number of publications. … There was a joke that the rate of growth of publications was as fast as the rate of growth of the virus.”

The huge volume of research has led to more media coverage for pre-prints (preliminary research results that lack peer review) – a trend that he says has led to public confusion “because there’s all this noise that’s out there.” One way Dr. Goel has tried to cut through some of that noise is with his podcast, What’s next? COVID-19 pandemic, which was launched by U of T at the end of March 2020 and ran until December.

After the keynote, Dr. Goel spoke with University Affairs about the podcast, his vision for a post-pandemic university and why he shifted his career into academic administration. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

University Affairs: Where did the idea for the podcast come from? How did you get the ball rolling so quickly?

Vivek Goel: Starting in about March [2020], when we went into the first lockdown, the provost asked me to do updates for the deans and department heads. So, at the start of meetings, I [did] these five-to-10-minute overviews [and] answered questions. Our vice-president for communications, David Estok, said we should really have this more accessible to the community, and I was also getting asked to go present to all sorts of other groups at the university. That’s when I said, “Is there some way I can reach a broader range of the community without having to do the same talk 25 times?”

The team in our communications office was wonderful. They set me up with a voice recorder on my phone and walked me through how to [use it]. We listened to a number of podcasts out there and came to the conclusion that what people are really looking for are short nuggets of information. The topics would be based on the questions I would be getting that week from our incident response team or from deans. Eventually, listener questions started to come in as well.

UA: In the announcement of your appointment to the University of Waterloo, you were quoted as saying, “In Waterloo, I can see what a post-pandemic university looks like.” What do you mean by “post-pandemic university”?

The pandemic has accelerated a lot of trends that were already underway: doing things over Zoom or Teams, working from home, teaching remotely. We’ve seen people pivot in their research and do relevant public policy work that they might never have done before. We’ve seen changes happening in the health-care system and how health care is delivered. We’ve also seen social changes get magnified, like Black Lives Matter or the impacts of globalization. If you look across all those different areas, you can see that what universities do in the future is going to be very different from what we did before February 2020.

We’re probably not going to completely move away from virtual forms of learning. I’m a firm believer that you need to have that in-person experience, but [filling a hall with students] to listen to a lecture, is that really, absolutely necessary? Or can some of that be done virtually and make it easier for students, and then you have more small-group, in-person experiences? I see the post-pandemic university as picking up on all these trends that were already underway and have been accelerated.

Theresa Tam and her chief public health officer’s report talked about the boom and bust cycle of public health: when there’s a bad event like SARS or Ebola, we get investments and then years later, they are forgotten. This doesn’t happen with firehouses, right? When there are no fires, we keep paying for the firemen. I think there’s a cultural element to it. [We need to make] sure that science literacy and media literacy skills are brought into all our curricula. As institutions, how do we ensure that the people that graduate actually have this broad understanding? Every student, regardless of what program or discipline they’re in, should really be an advocate for this, because that’s how we’ll get the long-term cultural change that will support public health, the way we support firehouses. Otherwise, I’m worried we’re doomed to just repeat the cycle that came after SARS.

In my mind, the post-pandemic university [understands] … this intersection of health, technology and society.

UA: Why did you enter the field of public health?

I went into medicine and, like a lot of people, I wanted to help sick people. I worked as a primary care physician and one of the things I realized was that … I’d see so many people who, [if they had been offered] interventions or access to programming, or just knowledge about healthy diets … it would have prevented what they were coming in to see me with.

When you’re working in public health, your entire community, province or country is your patient and you’re trying to keep them healthy, as opposed to dealing with their illness. I like to think that my move into academic administration was a similar sort of thing. As an individual professor or researcher, you teach a few students, you work on a research project. In academic leadership, you can have an impact on thousands of students and hundreds of researchers. I now get my thrills out of trying to fix the science-advice ecosystem, working with the deputy ministers on how do we connect these dots, which enables Canadian researchers to get their research into policy.

As much as I enjoyed doing the research and I enjoyed seeing individual patients or teaching individual students, the underlying theme [for me] is working at a population level, reaching more people and trying to improve systems and processes.

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