Dismantling the Silos

May 31, 2022  • Jylana L. Sheats, Ph.D., MPH & Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D.

This article originally appeared as part of the magazine One Health / One Planet, co-published by the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program and and sponsored by the Science Philanthropy Alliance.

Whether called a concept, methodology, strategy, approach or framework, “One Health” recognizes the interconnectedness between humans, animals and the environment. In an increasingly globalized world, “One Health” activities can prevent zoonotic disease outbreaks where diseases are transmitted from animals to humans (e.g., West Nile virus, avian influenza, SARS), ensure food safety and security, improve human health (such as reducing antibiotic-resistant infections) and protect global health security, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet, public health activities are not the only forces that shape outcomes. Culture and geographies have direct and indirect impacts on how health, illness and disease are conceptualized—and diagnosed, treated or cured–as well as influencing who is responsible for said treatments or cures (e.g., medical doctor, shaman, curandero). The nature in which humans, animals, and the environment are interconnected differs depending on context. For example, a paper by Cunningham and colleagues notes that “animals and people are not seen as separate in many cultural contexts, but integrated as part of interconnected social–natural worlds.” These beliefs are central to Indigenous communities, which have a deeply significant spiritual, physical, and social relationship with land, water and other elements of nature. A brief from the United Nations states that land is a “core part of their identity and spirituality and to be deeply rooted in their culture and history.”

In the introduction of a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society journal, the authors argue for understanding place, culture, context, and nuances of how “disease” is conceptualized. To do so requires not only collaborative, interdisciplinary understanding of disease, people, and their behaviors to optimize and advance interventions, but also participatory methods that value diverse perspectives and seek out local knowledge and histories. A key element of community engagement and participatory methods is understanding that community members are experts of their own lived experiences.

We should dismantle the silos in which we focus much of our attention, education, and research.

Across the topics discussed in this One Health/One Planet magazine, thoughtful experts propose a number of fruitful areas of research, with some recommendations for who should be the members of inter- and trans-disciplinary teams that lead progress in these areas. A major consideration should be to whom, by whom and how that research should be disseminated. Diversity within the context of perspectives and who is conducting research activities—as well as multi-level and -sectoral collaborations, communication, and coordination—should be paramount. In a recent Lancet article, the authors affirm that we should dismantle the silos in which we focus much of our attention, education, and research. By valuing the contributions of myriad fields that explain the interconnectedness of relationships among humans, animals, and the environment, we will further our understanding of current and new strategies toward improving human health—and facilitate and inform new research and funding priorities.

JYLANA L. SHEATS is a behavioral scientist and a Civic Science Fellow in the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program.

AARON F. MERTZ is a biophysicist and the founding director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program.