As part of our inspirational talks, yESHPM recently welcomed Jochen Mierau, professor of public health economics, to spearhead a meetup for young researchers. As the founder and scientific director of the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health, Mierau is one of the key players in the debate surrounding the pandemic. Building on personal experience, he spoke about the science–society nexus, the power of determination, and strategies for career development.
You might know Jochen Mierau, professor of public health economics at the University of Groningen, from his public appearances in the media as a vocal critic of the pandemic policy. What you might not know is that in the eighties, he started his education in a country that no longer exists: East Germany. After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, there was an enormous outflow of people, including teachers. Each day, parents and children wondered whether their teachers would still be there. Eventually, Jochen joined the outflux westwards. In 1991, his family moved to Groningen, where he would join the university in 2002.
Mierau started studying International Economics & Business, but soon switched to the general Economics programme. During that time, he wrote a term paper that was published in 2007, which is still his most cited work. It might surprise the reader, but this paper had nothing to do with health care. Mierau only started working in health economics later in his career: “People tend to specialise very early in their career, but it is important to look around in different fields of research.” That is to say that the topic of your thesis – be it for your bachelor, master or even your doctoral – should not have to dictate your further academic career.
Although many of the early career researchers are already past the stage of side jobs to pay for their studies, Mierau still has some advice for those in their bachelor’s or master’s. From his own experience, he can say that working at a bar or as a pizza driver during your studies is very important: “It is the only time in your life that you are doing a job that ninety percent of society is performing.” You can benefit from this, as you will learn to negotiate with people from different backgrounds – something you will need in your academic career.
An economist by training, the urge to solve problems with an equation is never far away. With this approach, applying to jobs or grants can be interpreted as an optimisation problem with the goal of increasing your luck: “Play the odds. If the success rate of receiving a grant is five percent, then apply to twenty grants. The same applies when you are looking for a job. In the end, you only have choice when it is offered to you.” He later remarks that luck is important, but determination eventually pulls you through. Spreading chances and grabbing every opportunity runs like a thread through Mierau’s talk. He encourages young researchers to go to as many conferences as possible, share ideas, and to reach out to other academics: “Have the courage to email a professor you admire that you want to work with them, then go there." In Mierau’s view, ideas are the currency. Academia is hypercompetitive, yet society is much more receptive of academics nowadays. The idea that leaving the ‘academic church’ after completing your PhD is a failure is outdated. Consultancy firms, tech companies and government agencies are increasingly hiring people with doctoral degrees.
By combining his empirical and methodological knowledge from his previous academic endeavours, Mierau started working on health economics at Healthwise (now CPHEB), which was at the time headed by Kees Ahaus. At a given moment Mierau realized that many questions coming in at Healthwise were broader than economics and business, and in the summer of 2016, he conceived the idea of a school of public health. The idea was met with some resistance in the university community, but in 2018 the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health (AJSPH) was founded, after the first female student that went to medical school – 150 years ago.
‘Aletta’ started with connecting faculties and embedding research in society. Yet, COVID-19 was the catalyst that brought everything together. “For a long time, COVID was treated as a medical problem with a societal element, but actually it is a societal problem with a medical element.” The network that AJSPH had been building for over two years came into full blossom: historians, legal scholars, psychologists, epidemiologists, economists, you name it, they all contributed to the public debate from their own perspective.
During the closing Q&A, the conversation on the pandemic continues. Mierau notes that all data and models regarding COVID-19 should be publicly available, including the minutes of the ‘Catshuisberaden’. As a proponent of an open and transparent democracy, thirty years after the Wall fell, Mierau is tearing down walls himself: those standing in between science and society.