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Why Science, Why Now?

Why Science, Why Now?

A reporter's question sparks a reflection on whether nutrition science has a role in policy discussions and decisions, such as those that took place at UNGA week in New York City.

by Mandana Arabi

A reporter asked me an interesting question recently: "Were you aware that it was the United Nation's General Assembly week when you scheduled this event?" The event in question was The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science's "Call to Action" event on malnutrition in September 2013.

The underlying, unstated question was: Why would you schedule, what's on the surface, an event about science during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) week, where there is huge (monumental even!) competition for people's time? After all, The Sackler Institute is part of the New York Academy of Sciences, located in NYC—the very hub of UNGA activity.

The reporter's question couldn't have been better. The short answer—yes, we knew—has an underlying message as well. UNGA meetings are, largely, about policy and science has to be a part of the policy conversation. If fact, I'll go as far as to say, science should drive the policy conversation.

At The Sackler Institute, we work off of the premise that policies and programs should be created based on evidence that they will serve the populations they're intended to serve, with the desired effect (not just in theory or in a lab, but on the ground, in the areas where the need exists).

Recently, a lot of money has been committed to nutrition. This is a truly positive step. But let's be frank: the money currently committed, if it is indeed translated into resources, is still not enough to significantly mitigate all of the overwhelming nutrition challenges (obesity, diabetes, childhood stunting, micronutrient deficiencies) that the world is facing. And we certainly cannot afford not to spend it as wisely and as efficiently as possible.

This is why during the heart of UNGA activity, The Sackler Institute held an event aimed at bringing together representatives from every sector—academia, private industry, government, nonprofit, advocacy—to talk about the new report, A Global Research Agenda for Nutrition Science. The report was developed by The Sackler Institute over the course of two years, in collaboration with the World Health Organization and more than 55 leading nutrition researchers, experts in public health, universities, and nonprofits.

The agenda represents the hard work of all of these parties, who came together under the premise that in order to make real progress against malnutrition, we need to start with science. We need to identify the most urgent knowledge gaps that are holding us back from designing and implementing more effective solutions to the problems of malnutrition. With this tenant in mind, the Agenda was created.

Thanks to wide-spread participation and many months of dedication, we now feel confident that we know where research is most urgently needed to move the field of nutrition science forward, to meet that ultimate goal of mitigating malnutrition. But now comes the really challenging work: activating the Research Agenda.

As Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the renowned public health-focused peer-reviewed journal The Lancet said at our event, it's not enough to simply belabor the point that we need more research. "What we really need is action."

I'm happy to report that Horton's words were not lost—he delivered them, powerfully and passionately, to attendees, many of whom had spent the entire day at the Academy, working with The Sackler Institute to create real pathways to activate the Research Agenda—to make it come to life in labs, in government offices, on farms, and in homes.

So, yes, we booked a science event during UNGA week, but it's a decision we would repeat again, because science conversations should not be separate from policy conversations; they should be intricately intertwined. After all, science is the basis for making informed decisions that can effect real change in areas as central to our collective health and well-being as nutrition.

Mandana Arabi, MD, PhD, is Founding Executive Director, The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science at the New York Academy of Sciences. For more information about The Sackler Institute's work, including access to A Global Research Agenda for Nutrition Science, visit