UCL Health of the Public


Spotlight on Dr Stephen Roberts

This month we speak to Dr Stephen Roberts to find out how his research on global health security is improving the health of the public.

Dr Stephen Roberts

Lecturer in Global Health

Institute for Global Health

Stephen Roberts
What is your role and what does it involve?

I am a Lecturer in Global Health at UCL’s Institute for Global Health (IGH). I teach across several MSc modules which examine and critique concepts and understandings of global health and advance the application of qualitative research methods in global health research. I am also the Co-Director of the MSc in Global Health and Development programme at IGH which involves many different things, but one of the best is engaging, supporting, and working with our current MSc candidates, as well as communicating and welcoming future students to our incredibly diverse and expanding programme. 

In addition to my roles as lecturer and programme co-director, I am also a Visiting Fellow in Global Health Policy at the LSE Health Research Centre, and an Associate Researcher at the Centre for Global Health Policy at the University of Sussex. These roles are highly collaborative and aim to further develop research partnerships and facilitate new pathways in global health research across some of the leading global health research hubs at UK universities.    

How are you improving the health of the public? 

This is such an interesting and important question and one I am constantly thinking about when producing research. I think one of the most important ways I do this is by highlighting and emphasising that global health is local healthand this applies equally as much to high-income countries as it does to low- and middle-income settings, where people often think global health is ‘done’.

I have done this, for example, in my ongoing research on digital contact-tracing, Big Data-driven disease surveillance and in digitised responses to Covid-19 which builds on and extends a body of research I have been working on for the last 5-7 yearsIn this work, I have shown how the UK’s digitised response to Covid-19 has ultimately failed to deliver on expectations. This is not only because it was presented as a silver bullet, with little evidence, to a complex, and multifaceted national emergency, but also because of the poor governance decisions, lack of public consultation and engagement, and an under-investment in proven public health measures which have become hallmarks of the pandemic response in the UK. As my colleague Shoshana Zuboff and I once jointly stated during a panel discussion on digital responses to Covid-19: ‘You can’t Big Data your way out of a pandemic.’

In addition to my work on the digitisation of public health emergencies and the politics of pandemics, I am also always preoccupied with ongoing questions of increasing inclusivity and engagement in global health research, seen particularly in the way surveillance is practiced and understood as a public health function. Along with some outstanding colleagues, I am now also involved in a project entitled ‘Centering Lived and Living Experiences of HIV surveillance’. The project considers and explores how community engagement, lived experiences and networks can be leveraged and enabled to facilitate positive dialogue and community-controlled surveillance of HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases (including Covid-19) while also countering stigma, criminalisation, and discrimination. 

What do you find most interesting or enjoyable about your work? 

I think I can answer this from two fronts respectively. In terms of my work in research and global health, it is an absolute privilege to be able to plug-in to, engage, and meet such impressive and inspiring researchers and colleagues at UCL, across the UK universities network and around the world. My research sits at the interface of a lot of disciplines (anthropology, global health, international relations, security studies, sociology) which means I am constantly engaging and collaborating with global health scholars and researchers in dynamic and interdisciplinary forums.

Regarding my role as a lecturer, educator, and teacher in global health, I am always so consistently impressed by the bright and creative minds of our students at IGH and on the MSc in Global Health and Development. I learn so much from so many of them, and their drive, ambition, and interest in making global health better and more inclusive always continues to inspire me. 

How have cross-disciplinary collaborations shaped your research? 

Rather than saying cross-disciplinary collaborations have shaped my research, I would say rather that these collaborations have in many ways defined my research. In some ways, I would define myself as a chameleon in the social sciences and in global health research. I am a qualitative social scientist with a background in international relations and security studies, but my interests in data politics, digitisation and technological interventions in global health mean that I constantly need to engage with, speak to, and meet new researchers across disciplines. I work with researchers from computer science and IT, science and technology studies (STS) and Big Data studies to ask questions and get answers to the issues that I am working on and thinking about.  

The ongoing digitisation of global health is occurring at an unprecedented pace, and this has been only accelerated by Covid-19. This also means that we as global health researchers need to be working collaboratively and across disciplines to track and address the implications for equity, security, and inclusivity not only in Covid-19 contexts, but in responses to future public health emergencies.  

What advice would you offer to others interested in developing cross-disciplinary research?

An e-mail or coffee goes such a long way. If you are interested in someone’s research, or how it could facilitate a compelling research partnership, always reach out and express interest, and invite your colleague for a coffee (whether IRL or via Zoom these days). It is such a simple act, but for me has always made the difference and advanced my research considerably, and you get to meet such creative, engaged, and inspiring people along the way!  

If you could make one change in the world today, what would it be? 

A halt to monetization in the UK, but also in bigger picture thinking across the worldThis trend to uncritically view everything through the lens of profit enhancement and view all types of interactions as a financial exchange across all areas of our lives including in public services and in education. My colleague and good friend Professor Barbara Prainsack has spoken about this in the past with such clarity and articulation, and as she has highlighted, societies that tend to flourish are not societies that have uncritically pursued these trends of monetization of public life.