I joined the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield today to celebrate their 25th anniversary, speaking about the importance of applied health research to policy making and making the case for evidence-based decision-making. I warned that:
“The dangerous nonsense promoted by some Brexiteers – that we shouldn’t believe experts, if their evidence contradicts what we want to think – presents a profound challenge to liberal democracies. And not just in the current Brexit debate. Closer to your work, the anti-vax movement is another example – putting children at risk across the western world. The rise of evidence-denying, conspiracy-seeking populism is a challenge to all of us. And something we should be resisting together, making the case that policy should be shaped by evidence and reason.”
I went on to highlight the specific contribution of applied health research to developing public policy, citing the example of smoking, saying that MPs and legislation are sometime accused of lagging behind, playing catch up with changes in society, but health research can enable public policy to lead changes in opinion and behaviour. I used the example of smoking, saying:
“When I started working at the University, I had an ashtray sitting on my desk. Smoking in workplaces, cinemas, pubs and restaurants was commonplace still 20 years ago. It took years and years of dedicated research into the effect of secondary smoking, before we finally secured the ban on smoking in public places – with the enormous health benefits it brought.”
The School’s work also enables MPs and policy makers to evaluate and scrutinise policy effectively, such as a recent study into the sugar tax, which showed a fall in the sale of sugary drinks since its introduction, particularly to children. It confirmed it was the right move and gave those of us concerned about child obesity, as I am, the evidence we need to push for similar initiatives. I highlighted other successes of ScHARR’s work, such as the Recovering Quality of Life tool which I helped launch in Westminster, before talking about the challenges in an era of fake news and misinformation.
Health research also faces challenges from vested interests, which are spending serious amounts of money to influence MPs and regulation, be it social media companies, tobacco firms eager to promote vaping, or the gambling industry. Policy makers need the facts, the empirical data and a clear narrative to challenge fake news and corporate interests. Research will also be key in informing how we respond to technological advances that are presenting new challenges to health and our whole way of living and working.
So I will do all I can to continue to support and promote the work undertaken at ScHARR.