Policy, Scientific Advocacy, and Combatting Obesity

14 December 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Officer

The United Kingdom is one of the most obese countries in the world, with more than two-thirds of adults overweight. The covid-19 pandemic has brought increased attention to the obesity epidemic, as being overweight increases the risk of hospitalization or death due to the virus. With this context in mind, CSaP convened an expert panel and a group of early career researchers from the Cambridge Metabolic Network and the Cardiovascular Interdisciplinary Research Centre to explore the role of scientific advice and advocacy in responding to the UK's obesity epidemic.

Throughout the workshop, experts including Professor Dame Sally Davies and Professor Nick Wareham emphasised the important role that framing the evidence plays in making the obesity crisis relevant and relatable to policymakers and politicians. For example, childhood obesity is linked to deprivation - thus linking it to the levelling up agenda, as well as to issues of fairness and justice. Dame Sally also noted that the Treasury is interested in combatting obesity - and was a key player in the introduction of the sugar levy - because of the economic, health systems, and productivity costs associated with obesity and obesity-caused noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes.

Both experts also highlighted the important role that timing plays in turning scientific evidence into evidence-informed policymaking. Here, Dame Sally Davies gave the example of how the development of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's anti-obesity strategy was likely influenced by his own experiences with covid-19. Meanwhile, Professor Wareham emphasised that it can sometimes be helpful to 'stay in the room' to ensure you can be there to pick your moment to deliver evidence. Moreover, he noted that it is vital to consciously decide when government is implementing a policy whether you are going to stay in the room and make the best of that policy decision through optimizing and influencing its consequences, or whether you would instead prefer to be on the outside - criticizing and offering your own views. He suggested that there is no room in providing scientific advice for 'sitting on the fence'.

Meanwhile, the MRC Epidemiology Unit's Professor Martin White highlighted the importance of storytelling in communicating evidence to policymakers. Stories that can be delivered in policy circles - such as a visual representation of how much sugar is in a can of soda - can play a powerful role. Moreover, he highlighted the importance of tailoring storytelling to your audience. There are different kinds of policymaker with distinct roles within the policy machinery, and it can be important to understand who is on the relevant policy teams, who within government is championing an issue, what types of documents those individuals are comfortable reading, and what details they need (and when) in order for your work to be impactful.

Finally, the Academy of Medical Sciences' Tom Livermore noted that successful policy impact often means collaborating and communicating with groups beyond the policymaking or scientific communities. He highlighted the value that can be gained from enabling interaction and communication between academia and industry, and the vital role of public and patient engagement. Giving an example, he stressed that if you come up with a solution or policy intervention to address a condition such as diabetes, if people who suffer from diabetes don't recognize that solution, it will not achieve any impact.

This workshop with the Cambridge Metabolic Network and the Cardiovascular Interdisciplinary Research Centre was organised as part of CSaP's work on professional development and policy engagement training for early career scientists. You can learn more about this work here.