Professor Dame Theresa Marteau: Case Study

Director of Behaviour and Health Research Unit at Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge


As Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge Department of Public Health and Primary Care, my work focuses on developing and evaluating interventions to change behaviour at scale. The goal of our work is to understand behaviour change across populations, to improve health, and to do so equitably.

The main focus of my research over the past decade has been exploring how we can reduce consumption of high energy foods, alcohol and tobacco – all of which are key drivers of non-communicable diseases such as type-two diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. My work is driven by two big questions. The first is ‘what would an environment that would enable sustainable, healthy behaviour for all look like?’ And the second question is ‘what increases the changes that evidence for effective interventions might be implemented into policy?’ I am particularly interested in interventions which involve ‘nudges’ – changing the cues in our immediate environments which shape our behaviour often without our awareness. For example, the influence of food packaging sizes on how much we consume. Based on our understanding of these cues, I am interested in how we can redesign our physical environments to support healthier living, and what factors influence the public acceptability of government interventions designed to benefit public health.

Recently, I have been applying my understanding of the behavioural sciences to the Lancet-Chatham House Commission on Improving Population Health post COVID-19. Through this commission, we are examining the links between the three major threats to health. This includes infectious diseases - such as what we are seeing in the current pandemic; non-communicable diseases - which are the underlying cause of 70% of deaths globally; and environmental degradation. Our aim is to map the shared drivers of these three threats, including unsustainable systems of agriculture, subsidies for harmful products, and overcrowded cities. By mapping these drivers, we hope to identify the actions that could synergistically affect change and drive improvements in human and planetary health. This is an enormous task, but as governments begin to think about building back better, efficient, accessible interventions are likely to be an important part of tackling more than one of these threats.

We also know that generally the public dislikes strong government interventions, but that people are also more accepting of interventions where the effectiveness of the intervention can be demonstrated. So, as governments work to build back better, we need to find ways of deepening public engagement and ensuring policymakers are thinking about evidence communication as they work to tackle challenges in the areas of climate change and population health.

The core value that CSaP provides is the opportunity to engage with policymakers on a one-to-one level, in meetings which are certainly a two-way dialogue. The policymakers I have met with through CSaP are thinking about a range of problems – including climate change, inequalities, and population health. As they work to tackle these problems, I have encouraged them to think about new ways of engaging with citizens. In turn, these meetings have given me the opportunity to learn, as a researcher, about the problems these policymakers are facing, how they frame these problems, and how they are thinking about potential solutions.

My work with CSaP has involved one-to-one meetings with policymakers at both national and local levels, from departments including the Cabinet Office, Defra, Transport, and BEIS – to name a few. I have also appeared on CSaP’s podcast and have joined CSaP panel discussions which have addressed topics including food policy, climate change, and how we can protect the economy during the pandemic. Moreover, I have had the great privilege joining roundtables where I have heard senior policymakers such as former Cabinet Secretary Lord Richard Wilson discuss, with wit and wisdom, challenges that are almost unimaginable in scale, such as how we can achieve the UK’s legally binding commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050.