Skip to main content

Public Health Research Priorities For The Future


The last century of innovative public health discoveries has led most of the world’s population to lead longer, healthier lives. Yet, the future holds some of the greatest public health challenges in mankind’s history. Global disparities in health; medication safety; climate change; epidemics of obesity and diabetes; an aging world demographic; and emerging infections all represent problems requiring scientific solutions. The solutions to these problems, like the solutions to those in the last century that contributed so greatly to our quality of life, will require paradigm-shifting innovation.

To maximize individual innovative potential, one strategy is formal instruction in the methods of innovative thinking. Teaching innovative thinking is rarely integrated into science training. However 40 years of accumulated evidence suggests that formal instruction results in improved thinking skills. I describe here some of the methods integrated into a course for graduate and professional health science students entitled Innovative Thinking. The curriculum consists of three components: recognizing and finding alternatives to habitual cognitive patterns; learning to use tools that enhance idea generation and originality; and harmonizing divergent thinking with the process of convergent thinking that is central to the scientific method.

To build more innovative environments, institutions can promote team science, fund staged scientific designs that are heavy on early prototypes, reward and grow the training programs of past innovators, and become less risk averse.

Although public health has accomplished much, it must continue to battle major, growing causes of disease and disability. Innovation is the engine of scientific discovery. Releasing the great potential for discovery in all of us must be central to forwarding health and prosperity in the world.


  1. Centers for Disease Control: Ten Great Public Health Achievements United States 1900–1999. Morb Mort Wkly Rep. 1999;48:241–3.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Ness RB, Andrews EB, Gaudino JA, Newman AB, Soskolne CL, Sturmer T, Wartenberg DE, Weiss SH. The future of epidemiology. Acad Med. 2009;84:1631–7.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. United Nations Development Fund. MDG Goals Annual Report 2010. UNDP. Available from URL: (Accessed 16 April, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Waage J, Banerji R, Campbell O, et al. The millennium development goals: a cross-sectoral analysis and principles for goal setting after 2015. Lancet. 2010;376:991–1023.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Available from URL: (Accessed 4 January, 2011).

  6. Leon D, Walt G (eds). Poverty, Inequality and Health: An International. Oxford University Press; 2001.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Kawachi I, Kennedy B, Wilkinson R. The Society and Population Health Reader: Income Inequality and Health. New York: The New Press; 1999.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Pawson R, Tilley N. Realistic Evaluation. London: Sage Publications Ltd.; 1997.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Global Forum for Health Research: helping correct the 10/90 gap. 10/90 report on health research 2003–2004. Available from URL:–90-Report-2003–2004. (Accessed 19 July, 2009).

  10. Diamond, J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Penguin; 2005.

    Google Scholar 

  11. McMichael T. Human Frontiers, Environments and Disease. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2001.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  12. World Health Organization. Obesity and overweight. Available from URL: (Accessed 19 July, 2009).

  13. Sjostrom L. Bariatric surgery and reduction in morbidity and mortality: experiences from the SOS study. Int J Obseity. 2009;32:S93–7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. The NS, Suchindran C, North DE, Popkin BM, Gordon-Larsen P. Association of adolescent obesity with risk of severe obesity in adulthood. JAMA. 2010;304:2042–7.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  15. Hutch DJ, Bouye KE, Skillen E, Lee C, Whitehead L, Rashid JR. Potential strategies to eliminate built environment disparities for disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. Am J Public Health. 2011:101:587–595.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  16. Christakis NA, Fowler JH. The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. N Engl J Med. 2007;357:370–9.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Centers for Disease Control. Achievements in Public Health, 1900–1999; Safer and Healthier Foods. Morb Mort Wkly Rep. 1999;48:905–913.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Liu S, Jones RN, Glymour MM. Implications of lifecourse epidemiology for research on determinants of adult disease. Public Health Reviews. 2010;32:489–511.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  19. Karlamangla A, Tinetti M, Guralnik J, Studenski S, Wetle T, Reuben D. Comorbidity in older adults: Nosology of impairment, diseases, and conditions. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2007;62:296–300.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. Bateman RJ. Munsell Y, Morris JC, Swarm R, Yarasheski KE, Holtzman DM. Human amyloid-B synthesis and clearance rates as measured in cerebrospinal fluid in vivo. Nature Med. 2006;13:856–61.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Newman AB, Simonsick EM, Naydeck BL et al. Association of long distance corridor walk performance with mortality, cardiovascular disease, mobility limitation, and disability. JAMA. 2006;295:2018–26.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  22. The End of Antibiotics. Available from URL: (Accessed 26 April, 2011).

  23. Schlipkoter U, Flahault A. Communicable diseases: achievements and challenges for public health. Public Health Reviews. 2010;32:90–119.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Fredricks DN, Relman DA. Sequence-based identification of microbial pathogens: A reconsideration of Koch’s postulates. Clin Microbiol Rev. 1996;9:18–33.

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  25. Gill SR, Pop M, Deboy RT et al. Metagenomic analysis of the human distal gut microbiome. Science. 2006;312:1355–9.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  26. Lambert LC, Fauci AS. Influenza vaccines for the future. N Engl J Med. 2010;363:2036–44.

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  27. Ness RB. Fear of failure: why American science is not winning the war on cancer. Ann Epidemiol. 2010;20:89–91.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. Scott G, Leritz LE, Mumford MD. The effectiveness of creativity training: a quantitative review. Creativity Research Journal. 2004;16:361–88.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Rose LH, Lin H. A meta-analysis of long-term creativity training programs. J Creative behavior. 1984;18:11–22.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. de Bono E. Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step. New York: Harper Perennial; 1970.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Michalko M. Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques (2nd edition). Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press; 2006.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Warren RJ. Reminiscences on Helicobacter pylori. Public Health Reviews. 2010;32:10–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Abhijit VB, Duflo E. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. New York: Public Affairs; 2011.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Kuhn TS. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; 1962.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Roberta B. Ness MD, MPH.

Additional information

Recommended Citation: Ness RB. Public Health Research Priorities for the Future. Public Health Reviews. 2011;33:225–39.

Rights and permissions

Open Access  This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made.

The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder.

To view a copy of this licence, visit

The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Ness, R.B. Public Health Research Priorities For The Future. Public Health Rev 33, 225–239 (2011).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Key Words