Addressing a Global Challenge: Our Children

Addressing a Global Challenge: Our Children

New research tells us how to take advantage of the earliest window of opportunity for childhood development—the first two years; now we need to act on it.

On most days, the scale of our global challenges as presented in the media is so daunting we shake our heads and move on. On other days, some of us pull up Doctors Without Borders on our web browsers, make a contribution at a Gala for UNICEF, volunteer to spend a week or two in West Africa, and prove that the word "humanity" means something.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job as President of our Academy is the chance to partner for change ... transformational change. We're a small organization with an increasingly big footprint because of the people who choose to partner with us. You, as Members, are crucial partners because, in one or many ways, you support us. So it is the staff's job to make sure we are doing something worthy of your support. And I think you will like this new initiative.

To frame it, I begin with an anecdote. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon invited me to lunch last January. When I asked him why, he explained that every post-2015 Development Challenge he faces—climate, poverty reduction, disease control, and so much more—requires a scientific and technological approach. He wanted, he explained, to start his 2015 with an overview of what science can do to address these challenges. As I dutifully provided him with an overview of our Academy's initiatives, he became so animated about one of our efforts that he ended up sending personal letters to the heads of 4 of the UN agencies, recommending that they meet with us. One letter went to Anthony Lake, the dynamic head of UNICEF, and when I met him, he had just come back from Iraq's refugee camps and was still shaken by the plight of the children there. And based on this experience, he was already primed to ask our Academy to work in close partnership with UNICEF and here's why:

Depending on your field of research, you may or may not have heard that the first 1,000 days of a child's life—from conception to age two—are critical in determining future physical, emotional, and cognitive wellbeing. During the last decade, increasing research has documented the devastating effects of malnutrition in millions of mothers and infants ... but also the extraordinary opportunity based on improved nutrition for lifelong health outcomes in cardiovascular diseases, possibly cancers, and even cognitive development.

Receiving less attention until very recently is a second opportunity: As a child grows—from inside the womb through the first few years of life—massive changes take place in the developing brain. Environmental influences including social interaction with parents/caregivers, socioeconomic status/poverty, emotional stress, and, yes, nutrition have all been shown to have profound effects on neural development, cognitive functioning, and future success.

Considering the extremely well documented advantages of children born into middle class and wealthy families, political leaders like New York City's Mayor Bill di Blasio are beginning to focus on how to provide the most disadvantaged children with an equal shot at success. And globally aware leaders like Tony Lake want the world to invest in mitigating an even crueler global challenge: emotional trauma to the millions of children in war zones and refugee camps.

Your Academy has—as so often in its proud history—been among the first organizations to begin to put the pieces of this puzzle together. In a series of landmark conferences and publications (see the cover story for more information) we are among the first to bring together the stakeholders who recognize that waiting to address the needs of underserved children beginning at age 3 or 4 is far too late to take advantage of the dividends that would accrue from activities in the years from conception to two. Maybe you would think that such experts all know one another. But as usual, the key stakeholders in this area tend to work in "silos" thereby missing the synergistic effects of integrated, cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches to mothers and their infants. Such uncoordinated siloes include nutrition researchers and neurocognitive researchers; "hard" scientists and social scientists; clinical pediatricians, policy experts and, last but hardly least, leading experts in industry.

But as proud as we are of these convenings, we know that action is what is most needed. And this brings me to partnering. Imagine if a dozen or so visionary mayors and governors across the globe tasked their agencies to incentivize proof-of-concept approaches to a subset of their most underserved families. What if the stakeholders in each location shared their learnings with one another? Out of these experiments could be born a series of interventions that could be scaled worldwide.

And that is the challenge your Academy plus Tony Lake; the teams reporting directly to the Mayors of New York, London, and Barcelona; and key stakeholders in Qatar, Uganda, South Africa, Malaysia, China and Australia are preparing to take on.

Stay tuned...

Ellis Rubinstein
President & CEO