To celebrate The Century Foundation’s release of our Archives of the Century at The New York Public Library, we conducted interviews with past TCF board members and trustees to get a glimpse of how TCF life has changed…and what remains the same. This post focuses on current TCF trustee Alexander Capron, a globally recognized expert in health policy and medical ethics. At the University of California (USC), Capron teaches Public Health Law, Torts, and Law, Science, and Medicine at the Gould School of Law. He also teaches at the USC Keck School of Medicine and is co-director of the Pacific Center for Health Policy and Ethics, a campus-wide interdisciplinary research and education center. He returned to USC Law in fall 2006 after four years on leave as director of Ethics, Trade, Human Rights and Health Law at the World Health Organization in Geneva.


The Century Foundation: How did you first get involved with The Century Foundation?

Alexander Capron: I got involved in the 1980s after I had been the executive director of a presidential commission that was chaired by Morris Abram, a member of the board of The Twentieth Century Fund (as The Century Foundation was then known). I served on a task force and then I was invited onto the board.

TCF: What were some of the main issues you were working on at the time, personally or with TCF?

AC: I have always worked on areas that combine medicine science, law and ethics, particularly bioethics, but more broadly, ethical issues in health, including public health and research. The main coincidence between my usual professional interests and TCF has been access to healthcare: how we finance care, who has access or does not have access to care, and what the effects of that are. More broadly, I’m concerned about the effects of access on civic participation and on the status of populations that are without full access to care.

TCF: What were some of the major initiatives you worked on at TCF?

AC: One I certainly recall was that TCF was interested in the communication of scientific risk to the public. It was true then and remains the case that the public often lacks an understanding of the ways in which scientific activities, such as biotechnology, could affect public policy. We had a task force that involved some researchers, some people from the media, a few like myself with a background in science policy, and other members from business.

The most surprising thing that came out of it was that while scientists are frustrated when they see reports in the press on matters of scientific risk, which they often regard as not doing a very good job of informing the public of what’s actually at issue, that frustration is equally felt by people in business regarding the description of corporate and financial activities in the general press. Even though the scientists looking at the press said, “well, look at the great job journalists do at covering business, why can’t we have something like that in science reporting?”, the businessmen said, “this is terrible reporting, they get it all wrong.”

It reinforced the notion that this is not a problem unique to science. It’s an issue when we can see the media’s failure to fully convey what’s really going on and what’s important.

TCF: What are some progressive policies you are paying attention to in the present that you find important for the public to know about?

AC: The attempt not just to extend health insurance coverage to all, but also to have the health insurance system do a better job of supporting care that is cost-effective. I see that as very heavily related to issues of income inequality, because so much of the cycle of poverty is related to health status and healthcare expenses. It is a circle we have to break. Part of the attempt to break it is through to efforts to improve access, but part of it has also got to be aimed directly at income security, food and housing, because the social determinants of health, in some ways, actually swamp the biological determinants.

In this country, we don’t have a good coordination of efforts to look at health as a whole. We spend a disproportionate amount on medical care, rather than concentrating on the social determinants of health. Attention to that connection between health and social status, general welfare and income support is my central area of overlap with TCF.

TCF: In your opinion, why do you think the public might be interested in TCF’s history? If they were to view our archives, what do you think would be interesting to people?

AC: TCF over time has been associated with a core set of progressive issues, and has had on its board and staff people who’ve made enormous contributions on those issues, going back to the 1910s, and certainly through the New Deal, with people like Adolf Berle, and in a later era, Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger and the many Trustees who championed progressive ideas and had a role in federal and state policies.

The personalities of the people involved and their intersection with important historical events is obviously of interest. Some of the work done, like the famous Gunnar Myrdal book, directly looking at issues of race and poverty in the United States at a time when that was not a matter of general conversation, continues to resonate.

TCF: Is there anything else you might like to share?

AC: It’s been a privilege to serve with a lot of very, very stimulating people. I think the ability to convey information and understand what about a topic will be of importance to the person on the street was once helped by our having had Trustees with a background in newspaper editing and publishing. Today, such a person might not be a conventional reporter or publisher, it might be someone who is very steeped in social media that would have a better grasp on connecting our ideas and policy proposals to people who care about such things.