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Thomas Young Prize Lecture 2020 – Dr David Nabarro

Published: 09 December 2020

NABARRO David v2_crop

Research Day at St George’s, University of London is an opportunity to celebrate the success of our students and staff, and the discoveries they have made throughout the year. For the first time, this year the day was presented entirely online, enabling people to tune in from their own desks during the pandemic.

As well as the internal prizes given throughout the day, the prestigious Thomas Young Prize Lecture is a highlight of the event every year, inviting renowned speakers to deliver talks of scientific importance.

This year was no different, with Dr David Nabarro, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Food Security and Nutrition, and Co-Director and one of the World Health Organisation Director General’s Special Envoys on Covid-19, giving a presentation. His talk focused on equitable action in the face of complex challenges, from Covid-19 to climate change.

The talk began with questions from Deputy Principal for Research at St George’s, Professor Jon Friedland.

Discussing his pathway through medicine, Dr Nabarro said, “I didn’t have a masterplan. Whenever I was presented with a problem, I found it hard to be sure I knew the solution. The more complex the problem the harder it was to be certain. I used to think that was terrible.

“However, I’ve used my difficulty in distilling things to simple answers to my advantage. I now help people to solve complex challenges and I’ve turned out to be really good at working with groups of people on complex issues.”

Speaking with fondness on his time at the World Health Organization, it’s evident that Dr Nabarro had great admiration for his colleagues and is exceptionally proud of the work done by the organisation.

“It’s a most wonderful place, full of some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve worked with them for many years and the longer I’ve worked with them the more I respect and value them, as they are all motivated to do the best in terms of outcomes for as many people as possible, regardless of nationality, wealth, ethnicity or sexual orientation. It’s an amazing place for core public health values,” he said.

Dr Nabarro moved to focus his talk on dealing with global crises. An advocate for preparedness funding, he detailed the keenness to prevent further pandemics after the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. Unfortunately, investment seemed to dissipate between 2015 and 2020, with research programmes into understanding future pandemic candidates stopped.

“The world should have been super prepared for a pandemic, but was insufficiently prepared,” he said.

“When the history is written it will be said there were multiple opportunities missed before the covid-19 outbreak, but also during. We’ve not been as effective as we should have been. The virus still, in my current view, has the upper hand.”

Dr Nabarro’s presentation was rounded out with advice to the audience around key attributes and principles. He urged the listeners to be ambitious, audacious, authentic and accountable in their work, pushing for opportunities, while showing people “your real self”.

His lessons throughout his illustrious career centred around building networks, narratives and nurturing relationships, while focusing on the “now”. These principles have pushed him to rise to the various challenges faced throughout his work in medicine, policy and public health.

He added, “All I want you to remember is that networks really matter. They are most powerful when across disciplines, organisations and governments. To make these networks happen you require people to venture beyond their comfort zones and to collaborate in a way that stretches them.”

Dr Nabarro’s talk ended with questions from the audience. Fielding queries on tuberculosis, covid-19 and fake news, he gave answers based on his own experiences, urging people to always consider the viewpoints of others and to work collaboratively towards achievable solutions.

Following the talk, Professor Jenny Higham, Principal at St George’s, congratulated Dr Nabarro on his words, saying “Thomas Young himself would have approved” of the presentation and the points raised in the discussion.

The lecture was recorded, and if you would like to watch, you can do so by clicking on this link.

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