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Alliance Discussion with Dr. Margaret Hamburg: Breaking Down Silos & Building Bridges

Recently, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, MD, recipient of the 2023 Outstanding Achievement in Public Health Award, joined us for an alliance discussion to share her views on public service, collaboration, and biomedical research. Here are her thoughts: 

On her previous role as FDA commissioner: 

“People may think of FDA as a big bureaucracy, but in fact, it’s a very dynamic science and medical enterprise … many disciplines of science and engineering and medicine [are] all working together in this committed way, to really try to translate the best in science into real world products and services for people who need them. That’s why regulatory science is so important because it isn’t a given that a good idea in science or an exciting discovery, will just automatically become a treatment or a cure for people or a meaningful intervention. It requires a very thoughtful process of research and development that FDA can help to shape in efficient and effective ways, and then [assess], to make sure that the risks and the benefits are in balance and that the product is safe, effective, high quality, and reliable.” 

On building bridges and scientific collaboration: 

“[I] really am a very collaborative person. I feel that almost every project is enhanced by working together. I feel that I am good at some things, but not at others, and so [I] surround myself with the best possible people and [strive] not to be afraid to listen and be open …. I mean science is a global enterprise and so to make meaningful advances, it is much more effective to work with colleagues, …. [and] bring the best science to bear, wherever it’s coming from.” 

On current issues and science diplomacy: 

“We’re seeing increasing nationalism, authoritarian governments, and very significant diminishment of the importance of science, the role of science in policy making, and a denigration of scientific expertise … and at the base of that [is] a lot of lack of trust in leadership, political leadership, but also scientific and medical and public health leadership. So, we have to address these issues head on, and I think we really do have to recognize that … no nation can be an island in terms of how it interacts with the world. We have to really think about how to build and sustain partnerships with others and in the scientific community. It’s terribly important because that’s how you do the best science. We have an opportunity to use science and medicine and public health programs to build bridges, to strengthen relationships between countries and people, that in other ways are distrustful of each other. So really using science diplomacy, not just to improve science and health, but also to create new bridges of trust and mutual confidence; but we have to be very committed to it, it doesn’t just happen, it happens because of working together.” 

On tips for building a thick skin when working in the public eye: 

“When I became the FDA commissioner, I actually sat my kids down and I said, ‘You know the initial announcements were all very positive but … it’s not always going to be like this. I’m going to get criticized a lot and sometimes it’s going to be unfair, other times it’s going to be fair because I’m going to make mistakes.’ You have to do your very best to do the right thing, you have to acknowledge what you don’t know and try to fill those gaps in your understanding of issues. You have to work with partners, you have to explain what you’re doing and why, and then you can sleep at night, because you feel you’ve done your very best, but you’re still going to get criticized. You just have to accept that and move on.” 

Watch the full conversation.