|Food and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 18, Number 2, 1997 (UNU Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 1997, 118 pages)|
|"Public nutrition": The need for cross-disciplinary breadth in the education of applied nutrition professionals|
Academic institutions typically reward their faculty for their research and publication record rather than for a history of effectiveness in the field application of their skills. In an applied field such as public nutrition, the most effective teachers are often those who have a great deal of experience working in the application of their knowledge. Hiring senior-level practitioners as teaching faculty in academic institutions can pose problems if the committees and administrators responsible for hiring decisions do not value or (equally important) know how to evaluate a history of applied work. Some institutions have responded to this problem by evolving parallel structures within the university. The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, for example, hires teaching faculty on a "professor of practice" track. These faculty are persons who have been senior-level public administrators but do not necessarily have the research experience rewarded by traditional academic departments. These are in no way "second-class" faculty, but rather faculty who bring a different set of experiences and skills to the educational enterprise.
As the field of public nutrition gains increasing recognition, there are more and more opportunities for professionals in the applied field to publish and disseminate their work in the academic community. There are journals devoted to food policy and programmes dating back to the 1970s, and nutrition journals now commonly contain sections devoted to the policy and programme applications of nutrition science.
Many academic institutions have associated centres of research, training, and technical assistance that function as a hybrid between an academic research institute and a consulting firm. These centres, usually focused on a specific area of specialization, often offer field opportunities for students; they provide a vehicle for hiring professionals who can enrich the teaching of the school without occupying full-time academic "slots." These centres generally are more flexible administratively than the academic departments of universities, and may be appropriate venues for short courses and training programmes. The collaboration of such centres with the academic departments from which they draw faculty resources is an increasingly common phenomenon in the academic world, not only in nutrition but in other fields such as public health.
The multidisciplinary nature of public nutrition, aside from its focus on applied work, may pose a particular problem for the institutionalization of this discipline within universities. Universities are structured into departments, and there is a degree of competition among these for resources, faculty slots, and even students. For programmes in public nutrition to survive, they need to be integrated into the institutional structure in a permanent way.
New master's-level training in public nutrition is being developed in Mexico and Central America at the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (INCAP) in Guatemala, the Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública (INSP) in Mexico, and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (UNAN), but all three programmes acknowledge the need to strengthen their social science, policy, programme management, and evaluation components because of the limited capabilities of their faculty in these areas. One approach to strengthening institutions and faculty in the region is through partnership with established graduate programmes. Indeed, partnering would be an effective means to ensure that quality professional training will be available in the region in the future at a reasonable cost (lower than in the United States, in any event) and that short courses as well as formal degree programmes will become institutionalized in several countries in the region. However, funding for many of these initiatives is severely constrained.