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FHS professor Susan Erikson named as a 2023 Distinguished SFU Professor
by Sharon Mah
The SFU Office of the Vice President, Research and International (VPRI) announced today that Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) professor Susan Erikson is one of nine academics selected to be a 2023 Distinguished SFU Professor.
This honour is conferred on SFU research faculty members who have achieved exceptional performance and distinguished accomplishments relative to their rank and years of service. The program is jointly offered by the Provost and Vice President, Academic and the VPRI.
Erikson, who joined FHS in 2007, is a medical anthropologist recognized for a body of work that analyzes highly complex political economies that shape human health. A primary tenet of her anthropological work is that wellness and illness are always and everywhere shaped by their social contexts. She started her research career studying how regulatory regimes for prenatal technologies affected women’s experiences of high-risk pregnancies. Her ethnographic study in two German hospitals – one in the socialist former East Germany, the other in the capitalist former West Germany – showed the difference that political and economic contexts make on human experiences of high-tech maternal and infant care.
In 2008, Erikson returned to Sierra Leone, where she had lived for two years, to begin a research project that had been interrupted by war. “While visiting maternal care clinics, I saw how much time clinic health workers devoted to data entry and documentation, usually at the expense of patient care. I came back to Canada and wrote a grant to study data collection impacts in resource-scarce clinical environments.” Those research findings, which won her a prestigious Virchow Prize in Global Health, enabled her to anticipate the rise of global health data as a business currency, a trend that has since increased exponentially. Her analyses cautioned that acontextual, top-down data imperatives restructure global health capital, labour, and priority-setting, with uneven and sometimes unfair effects on population health across global clinical settings.
Erikson’s research showed that health data was used not only for accountability, but also for ‘invest-ability’, a finding that informed her next project. With research funded by SSHRC, Erikson began studying the effects of financial deregulation on health. “By 2012, there was so much private money sloshing around in the global system, I became interested in how the excesses of investor capitalism affect health. I wanted to be able to answer questions like: can private investors deliver health financing that sustainably improves health outcomes, especially for the most vulnerable populations?”
In 2014, a new area of research emerged for Erikson, when Ebola broke out. She and a team of FHS graduate students were in Sierra Leone working in the health ministry and at the World Health Organization (WHO) at the time. “We witnessed the same conflicts between the health, economic, and technology sectors as Canada saw during COVID: to save lives, how much of the economy should be shut down during a pandemic? What are the best uses of technology to solve problems?” After studying a malaria smartphone tracking technology rebooted for Ebola containment, Erikson analyzed the efficacy of using smartphones during pandemics, and found that they failed to curtail disease transmission. This research had applications during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and her research findings were featured in The Wall Street Journal, Nature, Financial Times, and Wired.
Erikson’s latest research is about how specialized financial instruments are offered to global investors as market-based solutions to wicked global health problems. In a forthcoming book (MIT Press, 2024), Investable! The Dangers of Innovative Pandemic Finance, Erikson explains one of these instruments – the World Bank’s pandemic bonds – and makes a compelling argument against allowing private investors to dabble in public health and the harms that can occur when they do. “Funding for big-ticket global health challenges is being transformed into opportunities for private investors to gamble on. I wrote the book to explain in plain language how these complex instruments work so that more people understand the dangers and unintended consequences of taking the ’public’ out of public health.”
“One of my most important research findings was detecting that the modeling the World Bank used was to calculate the risk of investors losing their money, not for infectious disease risks to population health or the risks of failing to strengthen healthcare systems as a first line of defense against infectious diseases.”
The immediate future looks bright for Erikson – in addition to being named a Distinguished SFU Professor, she was recently selected as the first SFU Digital Democracies Institute’s (DDI) 2023-2024 Data Fluencies Faculty Fellow. This award will allow Erikson to analyze data and climate modeling that governments and businesses use in their planetary health initiatives, exploring implicit biases involved in calculating and mitigating climate crisis risks. “The project is ultimately a hopeful one: if people understand how discriminatory effects are constituted through data and modeling, there’s a better chance that we can build more equity into planetary health problem-solving.”
Erikson wryly admits that her graduate school mentors fondly tease her still for her zealous promotion of medical anthropology as a method for solving big problems. “I learned during a brief career in international affairs that project failures often result because people ignore political, economic, and cultural contexts, and, instead of unpacking complexities, dumb them down. Being smart about context and complexities is key to reducing human suffering.”