My “Excellent Adventure” as a Fulbright Visiting Chair

During the first six months of 2015, I relocated to Ottawa as a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Environment and Sustainability at the University of Ottawa, where my formal status was visiting professor. This is an informal report on what I did and how it went.

The Fulbright Program, as most readers will know, is a highly respected scholarship program that was created by Congress and managed by the US Department of State to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries, through the medium of educational and cultural exchange”. The program was conceived by and passed in tribute to Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, who was the architect of much of US foreign policy in the aftermath of World War II and a strong proponent of partnerships and intellectual exchange between nations. Fulbright had had the internal exchange experience himself as a Rhodes Scholar. The Fulbright Program operates in more than 150 countries. Recently, it has expanded its operations in Canada with several exciting initiatives.


The Fulbright Program’s partner in Canada is called, not surprisingly, Fulbright Canada, but its activities extend beyond hosting Fulbrighters and opening opportunities for Canadian candidates to go to the US. It is governed by an independent Board of Directors and operates out of Ottawa, where it manages both Fulbright Program activities and the very extensive and important Killam awards in Canada, which also support Canada-US exchange programs. Fulbright Canada is a joint, bi-national, treaty-based organization supported by the Canadian Government through Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, by the United States Government through the Department of State, and by a diverse group of corporate sponsors, charitable trusts, and university partners.

The University of Ottawa (UO) is a large public university,  which is distinguished by being bilingual (it is also called l’U d’O) and for excellence in public policy studies (as befits a university in a capital city) and population health studies. I was placed in the Institute for Science, Policy, and Society, a semi-autonomous institute housed within the Faculty of Arts (although this is expected to change) and dedicated to science policy.

Obviously, my connections to Canada were already deep and extensive (I am even a dual citizen), but Fulbright saw this as an advantage, an opportunity to guild on my already extensive network of contacts in Canada, to the benefit of both countries. I joked that for most Fulbright awardees, who were more typically young and emerging leaders, the purpose of their awards was to make an investment in mutual understanding. In my case, and that of other more senior awardees, it was to get a return on an investment already made!

My activities clustered in four areas:

  1. Science Policy. I was able to immerse myself in discussions of science policy (policy for science and science for policy), largely through an excellent graduate course, in which I participated both as auditor-participant and occasional seminar leader. This course, the guest speakers (all drawn from the Canadian research establishment, which is structured very differently from the US), and some related activities helped to structure my reading and thinking about science policy. During this time I wrote a few blogs and made notes for future publications, and tried out my new skill set by co-writing an editorial targeted for lung doctors, in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, that called for tighter air quality standards for ambient ozone (based on evidence). However, the major “product” of this experience was invaluable preparation for my current duties as President-Elect of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society (>30,000 members).
  2. Health and Sustainability. My latest book was published during the period of my Fulbright award, (Health and Sustainability, Oxford, 2015). My Fulbright Lecture was based on the material in the book, as were graduate-level seminars at UO and other universities in Ontario. During my Fulbright, I drafted a proposal for a follow-up book and got started on a follow-up book. Incidental products resulting from this and citing my Fulbright/UO affiliation include co-authorship of a paper in Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society (PATS) reporting on the results of a survey conducted on ATS physician members, showing that the majority believe that climate change is both real and directly affecting their patients today; this has received much attention.
  3. Wind Turbines and Health. This is not a big issue in environmental health but it is a contentious one in certain places where there is local sensitivity, and one of those places is Ontario. The Fulbright award allowed me to take advantage of an existing opportunity to learn more about renewable energy, public perception of risk from wind turbines (local opposition is mostly an Ontario phenomenon), and Ontario’s sustainability strategy. In 2013, prior to applying for the Fulbright award, I was recruited by the Council of Canadian Academies (which functions much like the National Academy of Sciences as an authoritative body to address big questions) to serve as chair of a panel of 10 experts deliberating on wind turbine “noise” and human health. The report happened to be released in March 2015, while I was in Ottawa. (A blog based on this report has already been posted.) Although well received as authoritative and informative by Health Canada (which commissioned it) and almost everyone else, a small but highly vocal network of activists in southern Ontario thought that it did not go far enough in suggesting serious health consequences. This got me entangled in a summons to appear before the Ontario Environmental Review Board! However it also provided me with a case study of risk perception and the social context of the problem, in all its complexity.
  4. Project in Historical Research. During the early weeks of my award, the family of a major figure in my core discipline (occupational and environmental medicine) asked for my help in sorting through his files, which covered almost 60 years of professional activity and many issues of great interest. For some time I have been interested in doing a book project on the history of my field and have been preparing with short-term courses in historical research methods. Together with two colleagues I curated the papers, with advice from local archivists and docents. This required several trips to Toronto for two or three days. We went through about 50 banker’s boxes in total. The collection has been accepted into the archives of the University of Toronto, where it will be available for future scholars to conduct research. The collection represents an invaluable historical picture of occupational and environmental medicine throughout the last half of the twentieth century.  I also gained a new research skill set in historical research using original sources, which is an art in itself.

I expected many more speaking opportunities than were actually requested. I originally anticipated that I would give a number of seminars based on the book at institutions elsewhere in Canada, and I did give seminars at a couple of other universities besides UO. However, turnout was disappointing, except at UO itself.  After that, I concentrated on presenting at major meetings where the audiences are larger and the impact is greater.

Another surprise was that as good as the academic seminars were at UO, they were even better at the YMCA. Yes, down at the YMCA. For over 50 years, the YMCA in downtown Ottawa has hosted a premiere lecture series, given by distinguished speakers in their fields, attended largely by retired professionals, professionals, and public servants who constitute an attentive and very demanding audience. The lectures I attended were all excellent, from Islamic art to modern open-water navigation technology to the restructuring of the Canadian economy, to reform of the justice system.

The Fulbright experience did recharge my academic batteries, focused my attention on science policy, provided me with new skill sets, and gave me the time and opportunity to think about new projects and initiatives. It also had wonderful social benefits. The old friends (the Arnolds) who invited me to share their house in Ottawa (specifically, to live in their very comfortable basement!) were wonderful, took me into their family, introduced me to their friends, and included me in their social events (including parties and a Robbie Burns night!). Some of the most satisfying moments during the six month were spent talking over and after dinner about current issues in Canada, reminiscing about the early days of Canadian occupational and environmental medicine (especially in the context of the historical project), and tapping into their insights and observations as experienced professionals in the same field. You can earn a lot by listening to smart people.